Autism is a lifelong developmental disability, characterised by difficulties in the development of social relationships and communication skills and the presence of unusually strong and narrow interests, and repetitive behaviour. Classic autism typically involves associated learning difficulties and language delay. Asperger Syndrome (AS), part of the autistic spectrum, shares the features of autism but without the associated intellectual disability. We refer to these conditions as autism spectrum conditions, or ASCs. We use the term ‘spectrum’ because, while all people with autism share common difficulties, their condition will affect them in very different ways. Some individuals are able to live relatively independent lives; others will require a lifetime of specialist support.

To people with autism, the world is often a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of, and which can cause them considerable stress. In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family and social life may be harder for them. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, and some people with autism may wonder why they are ‘different’.

It can be hard to create awareness of autism as people with the condition do not ‘look’ disabled: parents of children with autism often say that other people simply think their child is naughty; while adults find that they are misunderstood.

Our understanding of ASCs has developed extensively over the past 20 years, but we still need further research to improve the prognosis of people diagnosed with the condition in future years.