"Autism affects approximately 600,000 people in the UK. Many of these people remain undiagnosed and without support"*
What is Autism? *
Autism Spectrum Disorders (or conditions) are lifelong disabilities that, at their core, affect a person’s social and communication abilities. People with autism may engage in repetitive actions (e.g. lining up objects) or have specific interests or thoughts that can dominate their lives. Some people with autism find their sensory world unusual and occasionally anxiety provoking.
The autism spectrum is very broad. Some people have no language, intellectual difficulties and not engage with others. Other people on the autism spectrum (such as those with Asperger Syndrome) may have very good or even advanced language skills but find the rules governing social behaviour hard to fathom.
First identified more than 50 years ago, autism affects one per cent of UK children and adults, which equates to approximately 600,000 people in the UK. Many of these people remain undiagnosed and without support.
Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. Autism affects people of all racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
What Causes Autism?*
Research suggests that autism is likely to be caused by predominantly genetic effects but there are also environmental factors that play a role. Recent research has found that there are some genes that increase the risk of a person developing autism but the genetic causes of the majority of people with autism remains unknown.
Those genes that have so far been identified seem to have an important role to play in brain development, particularly in synaptic development. Synapses are areas across which cells in the brain communicate with each other.
The environmental factors that play a role in autism are more challenging to reliably identify. It is also unclear how these environmental factors may interact with a person’s genetic risk for developing autism. Research has not yet identified a direct causal link between any environmental factor and autism (including vaccinations), although risk for developing autism has been associated with factors such as parental age.
There are currently no biological tests to confirm a diagnosis of autism. Identification of the condition is at present based solely on observed behaviours. Many parents and adults struggle to get a diagnosis and there is often a delay of years between the time of first concerns and finally receiving a diagnosis.
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