What is autism?

Autism is a spectrum of neurodevelopmental conditions, characterised by difficulties in the development of social relationships and communication skills, in the presence of unusually strong narrow interests, repetitive behaviour, and difficulties in coping with unexpected change.

The causes of autism spectrum conditions (ASC) are ultimately genetic but environmental factors interact with these. The changes in the pattern of brain development are evident from at least 2 years of age, and reflect pre- and perinatal factors. 

In Europe (using the ICD-10 classification system) at least two major subgroups are recognized: Classic autism and Asperger Syndrome. Classic autism also typically involves associated learning difficulties (below average IQ) and language delay. Asperger Syndrome (AS)  shares the features of autism but without the associated learning difficulties (they have average or even above average IQ) and without any language delay.

In the USA, (using the DSM-5 classification system, revised in 2013) these subgroups were merged under the single heading of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Note that in the ARC we prefer the term ASC to the term ASD, in recognition that the term 'disorder' is often felt to be stigmatizing and pejorative, whilst the term 'condition' indicates this is a biomedical issue severe enough to warrant a diagnosis; but the term 'condition' recognizes both the disabling aspects of autism (social-communication disability) as well as the aspects of autism that are simply different (nicely captured by the term 'neurodiversity'). Some of these differences involve areas of strength (e.g., in attention to detail, memory for detail, and pattern-recognition or systemizing), which under the right conditions can even manifest as talent or savantism.

Acknowledging the dual aspects of ASC (disability and difference) means that we are not in the business of seeking a "cure for autism". We work hard to evaluate promising interventions that might alleviate distress and assist with areas of disability (from supported employment to autism-friendly social skills programs to pharmacological treatments such as oxytocin administration) whilst ensuring that the areas of difference are supported to blossom and enable the person with autism to fulfil their potential, happily.

Our mission statement: The ARC aims to understand the causes of ASC, and what helps. The ARC provides information about its own research on this website but for practical advice relating to autism, we encourage you to contact the National Autistic Society (in the UK) or its sister organisation in your own country.

The ARC works closely with clinical services to ensure that its research informs, and is informed by, clinical practice.


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