Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects cognitive, sensory, and social processing, changing the way people see the world and interact with others.

Autism is currently estimated to be present in 1 in 54 people. It is not a mental illness, but a neurological difference - one of many variations of neurodiversity.

Every autistic person is unique, with a wide range of skills, qualities, interests, and personality styles. As the saying goes, "if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism." The level of support required is also highly individual. This heterogeneity is due to the fact that autism is not a single condition but a cluster of underlying neurological differences that are present in varying combinations in each person. The behaviour and needs related to these differences share common themes but manifest in different ways for each individual.

Autism is considered an invisible disability since challenges and difficulties are often not immediately apparent. There are no visible physical markers. The cognitive differences associated with autism may also contribute to specific skills such as superior visual memory, attention to detail, and pattern recognition.

Clinical Definition

01. What causes autism?

There is no one single known cause of autism that is shared by all individuals who are diagnosed. Instead, it is caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and a variety of pre, peri and postnatal environmental factors. Epigenetic changes may also be involved.

To date, over 265 genes have been identified as being linked to autism, and in 99% of cases, several different mutations work together to contribute to the individual traits each person experiences. There is an ongoing debate about the relative importance of specific environmental factors, with general agreement on only a few factors (e.g. parental age and maternal infection).

02. Can autism be cured?

Autism is not an illness and cannot be "cured".

It is a lifelong condition, but depending on the individual there are approaches that may help to reduce the expression of characteristics. Over time, and with the right kind of support, strategies may be learned to compensate for autism traits. However, the ongoing use of these strategies requires a phenomenal amount of effort by the person, which is not always obvious to an observer.

03. Who can do an assessment?

Developmental Paediatricians, Clinical Psychologists, and Psychiatrists can do assessments. It is important that the clinician you choose is experienced with autism.

If you are an adult, it is advisable to seek out a clinician who specialises in adult diagnosis. This is crucial if you are a woman, as autism tends to present differently in females and most standard assessment tools are based on typically male traits. An inexperienced clinician may not recognise the often more subtle signs presented by autistic women, which could result in a misdiagnosis.

04. Is Asperger's a type of autism?

Prior to the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Asperger's Syndrome was considered separate from autism. It was diagnosed when the person met the criteria for autism but had no language delay in childhood.

Under the new DSM-5 criteria, people who were previously diagnosed with Asperger’s may now be diagnosed with autism with a severity level of 1 (level 1 means “requiring support”, whereas level 3 means “requiring very substantial support”).

This does not mean that the term "Asperger's" needs to be dropped from our vocabulary. In fact, most people who were initially diagnosed with Asperger's prefer to continue referring to themselves as "Aspies" or as having Asperger's.

05. What if I think someone has autism?

Your approach will vary depending on the person.

If it is for your own child, you may like to refer to our guide for getting an assessment. If it is for an adult or another person's child, and you feel that they may be receptive to your thoughts, you may want to share that you think the challenges the person is having may be due to a neurological difference. If they appear open to further discussion, you may like to suggest autism. You could suggest that, if they would like to investigate this possibility further, they could consider visiting the Autism New Zealand website for information on autism and on how to go about obtaining a formal assessment. It is possible that the characteristics you observe may not be autism, and perhaps there is another explanation for them.  

06. Should I tell people I have autism?

The decision to disclose autism is up to you and will depend on your specific situation.

It is generally helpful to disclose autism to family members and close friends in order to enable them to support you better.

There is no clear rule about disclosing to employers. In general, an employee cannot be compelled to disclose private information and may not choose to for fear of potential discrimination. However, there are exceptions depending on the nature of the role, and on how your autism affects you. You do have a legal responsibility to tell your employer about a pre-existing condition if not disclosing could put you or someone else at risk of harm. You also have to disclose if your autism would make it difficult for you to perform the tasks in the job description.

If you are unsure, we suggest that you contact an Autism New Zealand Outreach Coordinator, who will be able to provide you with guidance that is specific to your situation.

07. Is autism a disability?

Yes. Autism is considered an invisible disability.

The challenges a person with autism experiences are often not visible at first glance. Autism is one of the disabilities for which the New Zealand government provides funding. For more information on services and supports that may be available for you, contact your local Needs Assessment and Service Coordination provider (NASC).

08. How should I refer to a person with autism?

There is a debate in the autism community about whether people should use 'autistic person' (diagnosis-first) or 'person with autism' (person-first).

Many adults prefer the diagnosis-first as they consider their autism an intrinsic part of their personhood. If you are unsure it's always best to ask the person how they would like to be referred to.

Autism New Zealand does not use terms such as 'high-functioning' or 'low-functioning'. Instead we refer to level of need (very high needs, lower needs).

09. Does autism affect intelligence?

IQ scores are not inherently affected by autism; however, other conditions that do affect IQ, such as intellectual disabilities or savant syndrome, are comorbid with autism.

This means that autistic people are statistically more likely than neurotypicals to sit on the extreme ends of the intelligence bell curve. It is important to realise that above or below average intellectual ability, if present, is generally due to a separate diagnosis, not the autism itself.

Films like "Rain Man" have promoted the stereotype of autistic people having savant abilities, and contemporary research in medical biography posits historical figures like Mozart, Einstein, Darwin, and Newton as having been on the spectrum. This has contributed to creating an expectation of autism being correlated with giftedness, special talents, and superior intelligence. In reality, while savantism is more common in autistics (approx. 10%) than in the neurotypical population (approx. 1%), it is far from the norm.

Instead, people with autism may have higher aptitude in specific types of tasks that require visual thinking or pattern recognition, which can make it easier to learn certain skills such as foreign languages, musical instruments, or maths. The typically autistic intense focus on a single topic, and relentless study as well as practice, may also contribute to what looks like a special talent.

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