About Autism

About Autism

About Autism

Generally speaking, Autistic people don’t look different than anyone else. However, the way that they communicate or interact with the world around them might look different than what we are used to.

There are a variety of features (listed below) that can make up a diagnosis of autism. Each individual can have any combination - or any degree of severity - of those traits.

It's important to remember that autism is a "spectrum disorder". This means that, just as the features, characteristics and Autistic experiences are varied, the impact and severity experienced by each person will also vary significantly.

This contributes to why some Autistic people can experience very complex issues. While they may excel in some areas of life, they may really struggle in other areas.

Because autism is a developmental disorder, the characteristics presented may change with age, with certain features becoming more or less pronounced throughout a person’s lifetime.

Girl hugging cat

Autism is a neurological condition that impacts how the brain functions. The result is that Autistic people can experience communication challenges, difficulty with social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. However, how autism impacts an individual can vary a lot from person to person. It is a “spectrum” disorder because each Autistic individual is unique in their experience.

Autistic individuals may have a cognitive impairment or an intellectual disability. Their autism can be accompanied by co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, ADHD/ADD and depression, which are more prevalent among Autistics.

Sensory concerns are common, Autistic people may be hyper or hypo-sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, touch and/or taste. For example, loud noises, bright lights, scratchy clothes, or certain textures can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Autistic people might also have an unusually high tolerance for pain, which can be extremely dangerous.

Autism is usually first diagnosed in childhood, with many of the most-obvious signs presenting around 2-3 years old. According to the 2019 Canadian Health Survey on children and youth, 1 in 50 children and youth in Canada are Autistic, with boys being diagnosed four to five times more frequently than girls. In the greater Edmonton area, it is estimated that over 26,000 individuals are Autistic.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that someone has from birth, and while both genetics and environment likely play a role, research has yet to pinpoint its exact cause.

Is there a ‘cure’ for autism?

There is no cure for autism, and the notion of seeking a cure is dangerous and damaging. Autism is a difference that brings both challenges and unique perspectives. Instead of focusing on finding a cure, emphasis should be placed on promoting understanding, empathy, and acceptance.

Through public education and fostering a culture of inclusivity, we can create a world where Autistic individuals are embraced for their differences.

It’s critical that we protect Autistic people from harmful or illegal interventions.

It is important to know that vaccines do not cause autism. No links have ever been found connecting vaccines with autism. Immunize Canada states that “the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) has conducted evidence-based reviews and has rejected any causal associations between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorders in children.” Separate Danish and Canadian research has also confirmed these findings. The idea of a link between autism and vaccines originated due to a now-discredited study conducted by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and published in the medical journal called The Lancet in 1998. The Lancet fully retracted the discredited paper in 2010. An investigation published by the British Medical Journal found the study to be fraudulent and that the medical histories in the study had been altered and misrepresented by Wakefield (Wakefield was later stripped of his license to practice medicine).

How does autism impact people?

Autism is a hidden or invisible disability. You can’t see if someone is Autistic just by looking at them; some people might not have been diagnosed when you met them. There are some features, characteristics, and ways of communication that an Autistic person may use, but these aren’t universal, as every Autistic person is different.

The characteristics of autism vary from one person to another, but there are some areas of difference.

Socializing and navigating social interactions can pose challenges for some Autistic individuals. Many social interactions rely on unwritten rules and nuances, which can vary from one situation to another. Autistic individuals may find these rules difficult to grasp or remember consistently, leading to confusion and uncertainty in social settings.

The variability in the application of these rules can further exacerbate the difficulty for some Autistics in understanding others’ intentions and effectively expressing their own feelings.

As a result, social interactions can often be draining for some Autistic individuals, and the struggle to interpret social cues may contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s important to note that Autistic people possess the capability to interact with others, but they may require additional information and support to navigate social situations successfully.

By providing understanding, patience, and support, we can help neurodivergent people feel more comfortable and confident in social settings, reducing barriers to meaningful social connections and fostering a more inclusive society.

Autistic individuals can experience sensory information in a distinct manner, influencing their interactions with their surroundings and their capacity to engage with others.

Sensitivity levels among Autistic individuals can vary, leading to either heightened (over) or diminished (under) responsiveness across various senses such as sight, hearing, and balance. Consequently, stimuli such as sounds, lights, touch, and smells may evoke discomfort or even pain.

In an effort to mitigate discomfort, some Autistic individuals may adopt coping strategies like wearing sunglasses indoors to manage brightness, avoiding physical contact, using ear defenders to dampen noise, or adhering strictly to a limited range of foods to accommodate sensitivities. These adjustments aim to create a more manageable sensory environment and enhance their comfort and well-being.

While developmental timelines vary for each individual, certain milestones are typically reached around specific ages. For instance, some indicators that may warrant further assessment for children include:

  • Not responding to their name by 12 months of age
  • Not pointing at objects to express interest by 14 months
  • Not engaging in pretend or imaginary play by 18 months

Other common features can include, but are not limited to:

  • Social Communication Challenges: Difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication, such as challenges in initiating and sustaining conversations, understanding social cues, and maintaining eye contact.
  • Repetitive Behaviors: Engaging in repetitive movements or actions, such as hand-flapping, rocking, or spinning objects, as well as adhering to strict routines or rituals.
  • Sensory Sensitivities: Heightened or diminished sensitivity to sensory stimuli, including sounds, lights, textures, tastes, and smells. Some individuals may be hypersensitive, while others may seek out sensory stimulation.
  • Difficulty with Transitions: Struggling with transitions or changes in routine, which can lead to distress or anxiety. Some individuals may require support in navigating transitions between activities or environments.
  • Challenges with Social Relationships: Difficulty forming and maintaining social relationships, including friendships and peer interactions. This may involve challenges in understanding social norms, interpreting others’ emotions, and initiating or reciprocating social interactions.
  • Impaired Theory of Mind: Difficulty understanding others’ perspectives, feelings, and intentions, which can impact empathy and social reciprocity.
  • Executive Functioning Difficulties: Challenges with executive functioning skills, such as planning, organization, time management, and flexibility. These difficulties can affect daily living skills, academic performance, and independent functioning.

It’s essential to recognize that autism is complex and diverse, and not all individuals will experience the same features or to the same extent. While the list provided outlines common characteristics associated with autism, it’s not exhaustive, and Autistic individuals may experience a wide range of characteristics, features, and abilities. Additionally, some individuals may experience characteristics that are not listed here, while others may not experience certain ones at all.

Factors such as age, gender, cultural background, co-occurring conditions, and individual personality can further influence each person’s experiences. Therefore, it’s crucial to approach each Autistic individual as unique, with their own strengths, interests, and challenges, and to provide support and accommodations based on their specific needs and preferences.

Autistic people often have other co-occurring conditions, making their support needs more complex. Read more about common conditions that someone can have alongside autism.


People with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) might be more hyperactive, struggle with lack of attention or act more impulsively than someone who does not have ADHD. Read more about ADHD or ADD and autism.

Common Signs of ADHD in Autism

ADHD is most often diagnosed in childhood or adolescence.

Some people with ADHD are hyperactive and impulsive. This means they (might not be able to):

  • wait their turn;
  • act without thinking;
  • sit still or constantly fidget;
  • talk excessively;
  • interrupt conversations.

Some people with ADHD have difficulty focusing. This means they (might):

  • have a short attention span;
  • are easily distracted;
  • lose things or are forgetful;
  • have difficulty concentrating;
  • have difficulty staying organized.

These problems can significantly impact day-to-day life and may lead to problems at school, such as underperformance. Symptoms from childhood often persist into adulthood but may be experienced differently. In extreme cases, adults with ADHD have been linked with higher rates of addiction and employment issues.

In both children and adults, ADHD can occur with other mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Mental health conditions are more common in Autistic people. Read more about anxiety and depression in autism.

Mental Health Concerns

Research indicates that approximately four out of five Autistic youth experience mental health issues. Anxiety disorders, depression, and other mental health conditions are prevalent among Autistic individuals and can profoundly affect their daily lives, often posing barriers to education and employment opportunities..

Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities can affect how individuals acquire new skills throughout their lives. Around four in ten Autistic individuals have a learning disability, and the level of support required varies based on the individual’s needs. Some may require additional time to learn new skills, while others may necessitate full-time care and support.


Epilepsy, characterized by recurrent seizures, is more prevalent among Autistic individuals than the general population.

Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa, a severe eating disorder, disproportionately affects Autistic individuals, particularly women. Factors contributing to this phenomenon include heightened anxiety levels and sensory issues related to food. Symptoms of anorexia in autism may include restriction of food intake, avoidance of high-calorie foods, lying about eating habits, and excessive exercise. It’s essential to address these intertwined challenges with specialized interventions that consider both autism and eating disorders.

Recognizing and addressing the intersectionality of autism and these co-occurring conditions is critical in providing holistic support and improving outcomes for individuals with complex needs.

Understanding how individuals prefer to describe themselves and their autism is crucial, much like respecting pronoun preferences. Just as pronouns vary, so do the preferences regarding autism-related language. While some may communicate their preferences directly, others may rely on trusted individuals to share their chosen language.

Words Matter

Autistic individuals have diverse perspectives on how they identify themselves and their autism. When consulting our Autistic self-advocates, many expressed a preference for the term ‘Autistic person’ over ‘person with autism.’ While this is our primary usage, individuals may employ different terms to describe themselves, such as ‘on the spectrum’ or ‘person with autism’. At Autism Edmonton, we prioritize respecting individual preferences in communication.

Autism Edmonton will never correct someone about how they want to describe themselves. When communicating with an individual, we will use their preferences.

Terms We Avoid

There are some terms used to describe autism that is out of date and do more harm than good. Though many of these terms are rooted in historical understandings of autism, the terminology and language we use must evolve as we update and expand our own knowledge of autism:

  • We refrain from using terms like ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’ and instead focus on describing the specific needs of the specific Autistic person.
  • Instead of categorizing behaviours as “challenging,” “disruptive,” or “problematic,” we employ terminology that accurately reflects the nature of the behaviour. For instance, we may refer to instances of uncontrollable behaviour as “meltdowns,” acknowledge self-soothing behaviours as “stimming” when relevant, or provide a specific description of the behaviour, such as “injurious” or “aggressive.” It’s crucial not to frame behaviours like stimming as problematic or disruptive. By adopting the preferred language, we avoid medicalizing autism as a condition that requires fixing.
  • Stereotypes like the ‘Rain Man’ genius portrayal are misleading and don’t represent the majority of Autistic experiences.
  • We prefer terms like ‘non-speaking’ or ‘minimally speaking’ over ‘non-verbal’ to portray individuals’ communication abilities more accurately. This emphasizes that while someone may not use spoken language, they still communicate through alternative means. Non-speaking Autistic individuals actively engage in communication through various methods beyond verbal expression.
  • Terms like ‘suffer’ or ‘disease’ are inappropriate as autism is not a mental health condition or disease but a unique way of perceiving the world.
  • Autism is not a deficit but a difference in neurotype. Embracing neurodiversity means recognizing and respecting the varied experiences and perspectives of all individuals.

To truly understand autism, it’s imperative to listen to and honour the voices of Autistic individuals. Their lived experiences offer invaluable insights, and their preferences regarding language should always be respected. At Autism Edmonton, every Autistic voice matters, and we strive to uphold the principles of inclusion and respect in our communication practices.

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