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Department of Health

Think autism: updating the 2010 adult autism strategy


About autism

It is estimated that more than half a million people in England have autism. This is equivalent to more than 1% of the population and similar to the number of people that have dementia.

Autism is neither a learning disability or a mental health problem, although mental health problems can be more common among people with autism and it is estimated that one in three of adults with a learning disability also have autism.

Autism affects the way a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum of different needs – so it is essential to look at the individual.

Everyday life for people with autism can be confusing, frightening and lack meaning. People with autism can often find understanding and communicating with others particularly difficult, which can leave them feeling isolated.  People with autism may also experience some form of hypersensitivity or lack of sensitivity, for example to sound, touch, taste, smell, lights or colours. Autism is a lifelong condition and people may need to use services at any time in their life.

However, everyday we hear stories of people with autism who are living successful and rewarding lives: achieving at college, working in fulfilling jobs, and leading training to improve others’ awareness.

About Autism – Key facts

Throughout the updated strategy, unless otherwise specified, the term ‘autism’ is used to refer to all diagnoses on the autism spectrum, including Asperger syndrome, high functioning autism, Kanner or classic autism.

Autism occurs early in a person’s development. Someone with autism can show marked difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. They may be preoccupied with a particular subject or interest. Autism is developmental in nature and is not a mental illness in itself. However, people with autism may have additional or related problems, which frequently include anxiety. These maybe related to social factors associated with frustration or communication problems or to patterns of thought and behaviour that are focussed or literal in nature.

A person with autism may also have sensory and motor difficulties that make them behave in an unusual manner, which is likely to be a coping mechanism. These include sensitivity to light, sound, touch and balance and may result in a range of regulatory behaviours, including rocking, self-injury and avoidance such as running away. There can also be a repetitive or compulsive element to much of the behaviour of people with autism.The person may appear to be choosing to act in a particular way, but their behaviour may be distressing even to themselves. However, these behaviours can also be an important self-claiming mechanism and should not be stopped or discouraged or seen as a deficit.

Autism is known as a spectrum condition, both because of the range of difficulties that affect adults with autism, and the way that these present in different people.For example, Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome typically have fewer problems with speaking than others on the autism spectrum, but they do still have significant difficulties with communication that can be masked by their ability to speak fluently. They are also often of average or above average intelligence.

Recent estimates by the Health and Social Care Information Centre suggest that around one in one hundred people in England(over 500,000 people in total) have autism. Autism affects people in different ways – some can live relatively independently, in some cases without any additional support, while others require a lifetime of specialist care.

Adults with autism will have had very different experiences, depending on factors such as their position on the autistic spectrum, the professionals they have come into contact with and even how and when they got their diagnosis.