Autism spectrum disorders

What is autism and how does it affect your life? And how do you cope with work, education and relationships if you’re autistic?

three boys in classroom

People with autism may have a higher intelligence, but can still struggle socially

What is autism?

The word autism covers a range of conditions, called autistic spectrum disorders (including Asperger syndrome), which affect a person’s social and communication abilities.

People with autism find it hard to relate to other people; they see the world differently from everyone else. Sometimes this can mean they behave in ways that aren’t considered ‘normal’, such as copying what you say, or only talking about their favourite subject and nothing else.

While autism may cause difficulties and impairments, it can also manifest in special skills and abilities, such as a photographic memory

What’s the difference between autism and Asperger syndrome?

Asperger syndrome is a type of autism, but whereas people with autism often have learning difficulties, people with Asperger syndrome have normal – or often above average – intelligence levels.

Signs of autism

Autism is normally diagnosed in children, but sometimes the symptoms are so mild it can go undetected. There are three main signs of autism:

Difficulty with social communication: This can involve difficulty learning how to speak in the first place (although this wouldn’t be the case with Asperger syndrome). It also involves difficulty understanding facial expressions, interpreting tone of voice and understanding jokes, sarcasm and phrases that aren’t meant to be taken literally, like: ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’.

Difficulty with social interaction: Understanding unwritten social rules and other people’s feelings, thoughts and actions is particularly hard for people with autism. They like to spend time alone, and sometimes behave strangely because they find it difficult to express how they’re feeling.

Difficulty with social imagination: People with autism find it hard to prepare for the future, as they struggle to cope in new situations. They also tend to not recognise danger.

People with autism also:

  • Like to have a routine
  • Have things they’re very interested in
  • Can be over or under sensitive to sight, sound, smell touch and taste
  • Sometimes have learning disabilities

How will my autism affect my relationships?

As autism is so varied, how it affects your relationships depends on the severity of your symptoms.

Initially you might find it hard to build relationships. But it’s not impossible. If you want to make a new friend, think about some questions you could ask, such as: ‘what’s your job?’ or ‘what do you study?’ then follow it up by asking whether they enjoy what they do.

If you fancy someone it can be difficult to work out if the feeling’s mutual. (But it’s not only people with autism who struggle with this, so don’t worry.) Subtly ask one of your friends whether they think the person you fancy finds you attractive as well. Don’t tell too many people though – you don’t want to scare them off.

When you’re in a relationship it’s normal to get frustrated with your partner, and they may find your autism difficult at times. Communicating as a couple is hard, especially if one of you has autism, but being honest with each other is really important. Our article on talking to your boyfriend/girlfriend will help.

How will autism affect my work and studying?

Again, this is largely down to the severity of your symptoms and how your autism affects your life. But there are some things you should think about:

Getting support – If you aren’t getting the support you need in college or sixth form, speak to a teacher. If you’re at university you can find your university disability officer through this search engine. The national autistic society also run a student support service for London Universities.

Disability allowanceIf you have autism and you’re a student you’re entitled to some extra funding. You can find out more in our article for disabled students, and apply for the grant here.

Choosing the right job – If you have trouble understanding social situations then jobs that involve face-to-face contact, like teaching or working on reception, probably aren’t for you. But you could have skills, like paying attention to detail and remembering information, which would make you perfect for certain jobs, for example in IT or research.

Disability discrimination – Being diagnosed with autism means you’re covered by the disability discrimination act. So employers can’t legally discriminate against your autism, and they should make reasonable changes to make your work easier. Read our article on disability at work to find out more.

Treating autism

There isn’t a ‘cure’ for autism. And autism isn’t necessarily something that needs to be cured – it’s part of who someone is. However, getting the right support can make a massive difference.

There are schemes that support people with autism to learn skills they may have trouble with, like communication or academic skills. The national autistic society explains the options here.

There isn’t any medication to treat autism. However if you have repetitive thoughts or behaviours or are hurting yourself or others, you may be prescribed medication for this.

Next Steps

  • The National Autistic Society website has loads of information about autism.They also have community boards where you can discuss living with autism.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 22-Dec-2015