Autism is a neurological condition that impacts how the brain functions. The result is that many individuals with autism experience communication challenges, difficulty with social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. However, how autism affects an individual can vary a lot from person to person. It is a “spectrum” disorder because each autistic individual is unique.
Autistic individuals may have a cognitive impairment or an intellectual disability. Their autism can be accompanied by co-occurring medical conditions such as epilepsy, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal (gut) abnormalities and immune dysregulation. Mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression are common. Any of these conditions may severely impact an individual’s quality of life.
Sensory problems are extremely 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.