What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Two people having a conversation over coffee.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, also known as ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disability affecting the way people with autism experience the world. There is no known cause, and it’s a lifelong condition.

Autism is just one of the conditions that comes under the term ‘neurodiversity,’ which just means that some people’s brains handle information differently to others. This leads to differences in the way people learn, manage emotions and interact with others.

It’s worth noting that the neurodiversity movement sees autism, and other conditions like dyslexia and ADHD, as normal variations in how the brain works.

While one in 100 Australians have autism, an often-repeated quote within the autism community is: ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’, i.e., no two persons with autism are the same. They may, however, have similar characteristics.

Autistic spectrum disorder symptoms and characteristics

The ‘S’ in ASD stands for spectrum, which means autism is experienced differently by everyone.

Having said that, when moving through a diagnosis a multi-disciplinary team uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition) also known as the DSM-5, a book produced by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM-5 lists the signs and symptoms of autism and states how many of them must be present to confirm the diagnosis of ASD. It also establishes the level of ASD, with three levels being used as a guide only.

General signs of autism may include:

  • Challenge with communicating and interacting with others
  • Repetitive behaviours
  • Moving one’s body differently to others i.e hand-flapping, back-arching and rocking
  • A strong interest in one topic
  • A strong reaction to sensory stimulation
  • Preference for routine
  • A dislike of change.

Learn more about the signs of autism.

Levels of support in autism

Level one

A level one diagnosis might also be referred to as ‘high functioning autism’. Those with level one autism may struggle with social communication and repetitive or restrictive behaviours, but will handle most settings reasonably well.

Level two

A diagnosis of level two autism often means that ‘substantial support’ is needed. A person with a level two diagnosis may struggle with non-verbal communication as well as sensory issues, a deep focus on routines and a fixation on certain objects and topics.

Level three

Level three diagnosis of ASD requires ‘very substantial support’, a person may have limited speech and communication skills, limited social initiation and will often have an intellectual disability, making it harder to learn new skills. Restricted and repetitive behaviours are often more pronounced.

Getting an autism diagnosis

Let’s kick things off by saying that there’s no single test for autism.

A diagnosis for autism involves working with a multidisciplinary team that may include a paediatrician, a psychologist, a speech pathologist and sometimes, a psychiatrist and an occupational therapist. This team will work together, either at the same time and in the same place or individually over a period of time to assess the person and support them through the process.

The team refers to DSM-5 for diagnosis, but the diagnosis itself is based on:

  • Watching how your child plays and interacts with others
  • Looking at their developmental history
  • Interviewing parents/caregivers.

An autism diagnosis, if made, will include the level of support needed. Then, it’s time to start putting a plan together with the team involved in the diagnosis to work out how to put those supports in place.

Learn more about what to do next if you receive an autism diagnosis.

Autistic spectrum disorder treatment

While there is no cure for autism, there is plenty of support available. Early intervention is thought to be most beneficial and because autism can be diagnosed in a child from 12-months (although it usually happens from age 2), a personalised early intervention plan is always a good place to start.

Support and programs around language and social skills are taught through educational programs and behaviour therapies. Speech pathologists can help with communication development and social skills, occupational therapists focus on fine and gross motor skills as well as sensory development and psychologists are there to support any anxiety.

Find out more about how to access early intervention support via the NDIS.

How Mable can support with autism

At Mable, we know how integral it is for the wellbeing of people with autism to feel they are seen, heard and understood. One way to do this is to make sure that support workers have a holistic, person-centred understanding of autism. This helps them to create a supportive environment that supports people with ASD to learn and grow.

It’s why Mable partnered with Autism From The Inside, who offer an Autism 101 training course. Independent support workers on our platform have free access to the course via the Mable Learning Hub.

The course helps Independent Support Workers on Mable to understand what autism is, how people with autism process information and understand the world, and gives practical and proven strategies to assist in supporting clients with autism.

If you are looking for autism support for a loved one, you can book an experienced, trained independent support worker through Mable. Alternatively, if you are already working with a support worker for autism support, you can bring them on to the Mable platform to receive the Autism 101 training course to better equip them.


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the clinical definition of autism. Generally, the term autism is used unless talking about getting an ASD diagnosis.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that doesn’t go away with age and, while there are common symptoms, it is experienced differently by everyone.

Autism itself is not a cause of a shortened lifespan, but comorbidities relating to living with autism can sometimes affect mortality.