Updated 08 February 2016

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the brain and can make communicating and interacting with other people difficult.

Autism is a complex developmental disorder defined by core deficits in 2 groups of symptoms: social communication and restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour.

Children who are affected have speech, communication and socialization difficulties, as well as restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours. It is important to note that all children with autism also have a spectrum of sensory dysfunction. 

Alternative names

  • Autistic disorder
  • Asperger syndrome 
  • Pervasive developmental disorders (PDD)
  • Unspecified, but collectively referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)

Autism is a behaviourally defined developmental disorder which appears to be caused in early development by the impact of the environment on a genetic predisposition.

Autism is treatable, and early medical/biomedical and behavioural/therapeutic intervention greatly improves the outcomes of children with ASDs.

Usually diagnosed before the age of three, a pattern of initial seemingly normal development, followed by a regression or loss of skills around 18 months, is common.

Very few children with autism have a history of autism in their families. A widely accepted hypothesis is that there is no one particular cause for autism, but rather a genetic predisposition to many things, including depression, alcoholism, OCD, etc.

These genes interact with the environment, which may include metals, viruses, antibiotics, toxins and other factors, which result in insult or injury to the gut/brain axis.

Read more:

Symptoms of autism

Diagnosing autism

Treating autism 

Reviewed by Dr Louise Lindenberg, MBChB (Stell), MFHom (UK).  Integrative Medical Practitioner specialising in Disorders onthe Autism Spectrum in children, Cape Town. February 2015.

Previously reviewed by Jenny Buckle, Reach Autism SA, (November 2010)


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