What is Autism?

A Simple Guide to Understanding The Spectrum

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.

It’s called a “spectrum” disorder because it affects individuals in different ways with varying degrees of severity.

Autism advocates often say, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Autistic individuals are just as unique and diverse as their neurotypical peers, and should never be lumped into one box!

The Autism Spectrum

Most people think the autism spectrum looks like this:




The truth is, it looks more like this:











Move the dots to better understand the highs and lows on the autism spectrum.

An autistic person may have language skills that are below average, meaning they find it difficult to communicate both verbally and non-verbally. But on the other hand, that same person may have high perception skills, above that of neurotypicals.

It’s important to remember that every individual on the spectrum is diverse and unique.

For example:

Adam has high motor skills and perception, but struggles with language and executive function. He is also extra sensitive to sensory overloads.

Amirah needs more support with perception and is often overwhelmed by high sensory input. She has strong language skills, as well as high motor skills and executive function.

Wei Jie has difficulties with communication and fine and gross motor skills. He also needs help with perception and sensory overloads.

Priya has high language and motor skills, but still needs support in other areas.

The Levels Of Autism

During a diagnosis, doctors and therapists will be able to determine the level of autism a person has. With this level, specialists will be able to provide more effective plans and support for the individual based on their needs.

ASD Level 1

This is considered the mildest level of autism. People at this level generally have mild symptoms that may not interfere too much with school, work, or relationships. Although this is not always the case. Again, it depends on the individual and the autism traits they have.

Some people with ASD Level 1 may go through their entire lives without even knowing they are autistic. Often, they may just feel “different” or realise that they struggle with things that their peers do not. 

This level was previously categorised as Asperger’s syndrome (a term that is now no longer used) and is also known as high-functioning autism.

ASD Level 2

People at this level may have more difficulties with social communication and repetitive behaviours. This level is easier to detect in children, as they usually have struggles with verbal and nonverbal communication. They may also not respond to social cues in a way that is considered the norm. E.g. not laughing at or understanding a joke, having a meltdown at a small inconvenience etc.

Individuals at level 2 autism require substantial support in the form of speech therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills training, as well as a plan that caters to their unique strengths and weaknesses.

ASD Level 3

This is considered the most severe level of autism. People at this level require the most support and understanding. They tend to have big challenges in social communication and thrive on schedules. Any changes or surprises in their schedules can be extremely difficult for them to navigate.

Both restrictive and repetitive behaviours are very prevalent at this level, and this can interfere with the individual’s ability to function. Trying to get them to change activities or disrupt their routine can cause significant distress.

What it’s like to be autistic

Autism is different for everyone. Some need little to no support, while others may need a full time caregiver.

In general, autistic people may:

Have difficulty communicating and interacting with people

Have difficulty understanding how people think or feel

Find bright lights overwhelming and painful

Find loud noises or repetitive background noises stressful and uncomfortable

Get anxious or stressed when their schedule is disrupted, there’s a sudden change in plans, or are in unfamiliar situations

Feel upset or panic during social events

Take longer to understand information

Do, think, or say the same things over and over

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What comes after the diagnosis?

There is no treatment or cure for autism because autism is not an illness or disease. It’s a neurological disorder that requires support and understanding.

After a diagnosis, professionals will determine what kind of support an individual needs.

For example:

Wei Jie has difficulties in speaking, understanding, and communication

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Wei Jie may benefit from speech therapy

Amirah has trouble with fine and gross motor skills

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Amirah may benefit from physical therapy

Adam needs help to be more independent

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Adam can learn how to complete activities for daily living in occupational therapy

Priya is very sensitive to sounds, lights, and touch

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Priya may benefit to sensory training

There are many more types of therapy that can help support autistic people. In some cases, specific medications can also help with certain symptoms. For example, certain medications may be prescribed for a hyperactive individual.

How can you help?

Autistic people exist all around us. They may be family members, friends, colleagues, or just a stranger you walk past in the supermarket.

The best ways to help an autistic individual are:

    • Be supportive and encouraging of their strengths and interests
    • Provide assistance in areas where they struggle
    • Be discreet if an autistic person makes a social faux-pas. Don’t shame them.
    • Listen when they speak. Really listen. Don’t be so quick to give an answer or cut them off.
    • Be sensitive to their sensitivities. Autistic individuals often get overwhelmed by too much noise, lights, and crowds. Do what you can to minimise sensory overloads.
    • Extend your patience and grace
    • Instead of trying to change them to fit society’s definition of “normal”, adjust yourself to view the world from their perspective

At the end of the day, the best support you can provide the autistic community is kindness and understanding.