Autism Spectrum Disorder, also referred to simply as “autism”, is a pervasive neurodevelopmental disorder. This means it is a disorder that affects brain development.

Early signs of autism are typically present before the age of 3.

A definitive cause of autism remains unknown, however there is ongoing research to attempt to establish causal links.

The word “spectrum”, in the name, implies that each individual with autism will have different difficulties at varying degrees. This means that no two individuals with autism are the same. For example, a child may communicate differently, may do things differently, and may behave differently to another child with autism.

Individuals cannot outgrow autism and there are no medications that can cure it. But with the help of the individual’s family, doctors, teachers and/or therapists, the individual’s ability to learn new skills, cope with and manage their difficulties can be improved.


Individuals with autism have difficulties in the following areas (to varying degrees):

  1. Language and communication
  • Language and communication will often be deviant or delayed. Individuals with autism will have varying difficulties within language and communication. This is explored in more depth below.
  1. Social interactions
  • Individuals with autism may have difficulty with how they interact with other people. For example:
    • They may find it hard to play or share interest/emotions with other children or adults.
    • They may have poor non-verbal communication (e.g. reduced eye contact, difficulty understanding or using gestures, difficulty understanding and using facial expressions or difficulty understanding subtle social cues).
    • They may find it difficult to change their behavior to suit different social situations.
  1. Behavior and thinking
  • Individuals with autism may have restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. For example:
    • They may repeat the same behavior all the time (e.g. spinning wheels on a toy car).
    • They may repeat the same words over and over, or copy what you say.
    • They may get upset if something is done differently to what they are used to (out of routine).
  1. Hyper-or hypo activity to different sensory input
  • Individuals with autism have different sensory needs. For example:
    • They may not like being touched.
    • They may find it hard to look at people or certain things.
    • They may not like loud noise.
    • Lights, sounds and smells may distract them.
    • They may only like some foods and not like the feeling of other foods in their mouth.


Individuals with autism:

  • May have difficulty with both verbal and non-verbal communication
  • May have difficulty knowing how or when to use language (e.g. when to say “how are you?”).
  • May have difficulties understanding language (e.g. they may not understand an instruction or respond appropriately to a question).
  • May have difficulties talking to others and being able to say what they want.
  • May say things that do not seem appropriate to some people.
  • May not communicate verbally at all.
  • May interpret some language literally and have difficulty with understanding idioms and sarcasm.
  • May find learning to read and write difficult – they may be able to read but not understand what it means.
  • May stop using words that he/she has used before.
  • May not be able to understand or use gestures appropriately (e.g. “waving” or “pointing”).
  • May repeat words they hear from you or on the TV.
  • May use tantrums (e.g. crying, screaming, shouting, hitting) to show what they want or dislike – this might be the only way that they know how to communicate with you (they may not know how to use words to tell you what they want, need or do not like).


A Speech-Language Therapist can help the individual:

  • Learn to use the hands and body, pictures or other devices, to tell someone something (assist the individual to find an effective means to communicate with people in his/her life).
  • Follow instructions and understand questions
  • Find a means to ask for help, ask and answer questions, start or stop talking to someone, take turns when talking to someone.
  • Understand different social uses of language (verbal and non-verbal)
  • Play or interact appropriately with other children or adults
  • Literacy development


  • It may be difficulty to find appropriate schooling for a child with autism.
  • The individual may not be sleeping properly – this then affects the family’s sleep.
  • The individual may only like a limited number of foods or may not want to sit and eat at the table with family.
  • The caregivers may find it difficult to toilet train the child.
  • The caregivers may find it difficult to control or understand their child’s behavior.
  • The caregivers may worry what other people are thinking when their child does not act according to what others find appropriate.

These are just a few difficulties that families report. Because each individual with autism is unique, each family also faces varying challenges.

Support groups:

There are support groups for families of children with autism and adults with autism – you can learn more about autism, meet other parents who have children with autism or other adults with autism. As a caregiver, your happiness is going to affect your child’s happiness so look after yourself and get the support that you need! If you live in the Western Cape, you can contact Autism Western Cape to find out more about support groups near you.




Next week we’ll be discussing how caregivers can help their child with communication, language and literacy development at home (with inexpensive or limited resources/materials), so watch out for that!


Submitted by Natalie Scholtz (Speech Language Pathologist)


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