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Autism, also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a complex disorder of the brain that typically lasts through a person's lifetime.

Autism affects how a person communicates, behaves, interacts with and views the world. In most cases its causes are unknown. People with autism may have difficulty with communication and interacting with others, or demonstrate a restricted or repeated set of behaviours. Autism is referred to as a "spectrum" disorder, as it presents differently in everyone who has it. As all people with autism present differently, there is no sure set of characteristics. Other syndromes associated with autism are Asperger's syndrome and Rett syndrome, which almost exclusively affects females.

Some common signs are:

1) Social communication and interaction:

  • Lack of social-emotional engagement
  • Lack of non-verbal communication
  • Difficulty in developing and maintaining relationships appropriate to developmental level
  • Delayed speech or unable to speak two words by age two
  • Lack of eye contact when speaking
  • Loss of language skills at any age.

2) Restricted and repetitive behaviours:

  • Excessive adherence to routines, patterns or behaviour, and distress at changes
  • Stereotyped or repetitive speech, movements or use of objects, such as rolling wheels before eyes, flapping hands, toe walking
  • Hyper or hypo-reactivity to sensory input such as sound, pain or textures
  • Restricted or fixated interests such as only playing with certain toys or discussing certain topics
  • Aggressive toward other people or toward self.

Characteristics by Autism Awareness Australia

Causes and treatment

There is no known cause of autism. It is likely to be caused by a number of genetic differences, and environmental factors may also be involved.

A child can show signs of autism in the first years of life and diagnosis can typically happen from around three years of age. A diagnosis will generally involve the assessment of a child to see how many of the signs of austism they display. How this assessment is conducted varies greatly from state to state, but usually includes consideration of family history, communication and cognitive skills and medical assessments.

Treatment for autism depends on how old a person is when the diagnosis is made. It often will include a number of services, including psychology, occupational therapy and speech pathology among other more targeted therapies.

How the Florey is making a difference

Our researchers are working on novel compounds isolated from an abundant natural source to determine whether it might help alleviate some of the negative cognitive effects for people diagnosed with ASD. This work is being performed in conjunction with ASD clinicians at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Other work includes using preclinical genetic models of ASD to measure impaired social interaction, and develop novel therapeutic agents to improve this debilitating consequence of the disorder.

Key facts

  • About one in 68 people are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
  • It is five times more likely to appear in boys than in girls.
  • Autism diagnosis is most prevalent among children aged 5 to 14.

Support and information

For further information and support contact Autism Awareness Australia on 1300 900 681. State based services can be found here.

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