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Understanding Autism


“One in 94 Canadians are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), suggesting that you probably know someone affected by autism.” –

Autism is one of a group of developmental disorders called autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) that appear in early childhood and can be diagnosed before age three (Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet n.d). Although symptoms and severity vary, all autism disorders impair a child’s social interaction and communication with others. Individuals on the autism spectrum are unique, and many can have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills. 

ASD is one of the most common developmental disabilities affecting an estimated one in 66 children (Austism Speaks Canada, 2015). Whether this is due to better detection and reporting of autism; a real increase in the number of cases; or a combination of both, is not fully known. Like many other diagnoses autism falls on a spectrum and each individual is impacted differently. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental brain disorder that affects the way the brain works (Ministry of Children and Youth Services, 2017). The causes of ASD are still unknown and there is no cure. With early intervention and support, many individuals with ASD can lead happy and successful lives. 

Did You Know?

There are often misconceptions about ASD that cause negative stereotypes and perceptions. Here are five common myths about Autism Spectrum Disorder by Autism Speaks:

  • Myth: Individuals with autism are unable to express emotion and build relationships with others.

Fact: Individuals with autism may not show emotions in a way that people without autism do, but this does not mean they cannot express emotions and build relationships. People with autism may have difficulty understanding body language, tone of voice and social cues. They may have difficulty communicating their desires to have a relationship or friendship in the same way that you do.  Since individuals with autism struggle with social skills, it can make it difficult for them to interact with peers.  They may be keen to make friends, but find this difficult as they do not have “typical social skills”.

  • Myth: Individuals with autism are all the same.

Fact: Everyone is different. We all learn differently, think differently and act differently. This is the same for individuals with autism. How each person is impacted socially and cognitively will vary. For example, one child with autism may have a difficult time in large crowds, but would be comfortable with one-to-one interactions. Another child with the same diagnosis may have a difficult time with one-to-one interactions, but would be very comfortable in large crowds. It is important to be sensitive to your child’s unique personality, needs and coping style.

  • Myth: Autism is a result of bad parenting.

Fact: There is clear evidence from research that autism is not caused by bad parenting, but from a difference in the way the brain develops before the child is born. Autism is a result of genetics, not environment. “Bad” parenting will not cause a child to develop autism (Autism Speaks, 2018).

  • Myth: Individuals with autism are prone to violence and to being violent.

Fact: Media coverage suggests that individuals with ASD are violent people and this is not true. This erroneous belief contributes to the negative attitudes and stereotypes of individuals with ASD. All behaviours associated with autism are individualized. Many behaviours observed in children can have triggers. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach to say all behaviours are a result of autism. In addition, individuals with autism can have difficulty regulating their emotions. Accessing supports and resources to learn tools and techniques to help your child manage strong feelings and associated behaviours is highly recommended.

  • Myth: Individuals with autism cannot lead independent and successful lives.

Fact: Everyday individuals with autism are breaking down barriers and showing society that they are able to learn ways to live happy, healthy lives. When a child receives early intervention they are more likely to lead successful lives. Did you know? There are many successful individuals diagnosed with ASD that have gone on to do amazing things! For example, Daryl Hannah is a famous actress who self-reports living with ASD. She is known for her roles in many popular Hollywood films. For more information about Daryl Hannah’s reported experience of living with autism, you can visit here.

Symptoms of Autism

Autism first appears during infancy or early childhood, 18 months or younger. At the age of two or three years old, a diagnosis can be made, however a final diagnosis may not be confirmed until the child is much older (Autism Speaks, 2018). Children on the autism spectrum generally have a triad of symptoms – impairments in social interaction, communication and behavior. Symptoms of autism vary greatly and, in most cases, severe autism is marked by a complete inability to communicate or interact with others. Autism is referred to as a “spectrum disorder” because the symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in many different ways and severities ranging from mild to severe. Every child with autism may have a unique pattern of behavior, but according to the Geneva Centre for Autism, some common symptoms of autism include:

  • Atypical use or lack of communication skills
  • Unusual use or lack of eye contact
  • Difficulty with transition
  • Repetitive behaviours
  • Sensory integration problems i.e hypersensitive to sounds, visual stimuli or touch

For more a more detailed list of symptoms of autism you, can visit the following links:

Diagnosing autism

There are no medical tests for diagnosing autism. A qualified training professional such as a doctor, neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician or ASD specialist can give an official diagnosis based on observations of a child’s social communications, social interactions and their patterns of behaviour or interests (Autism Canada, 2018). In 2013, the diagnostic criteria for ASD replaced previous categories such as Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS) and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) with ASD. Contributing to the diagnosis is the level of support needed with social communication and restricted, repetitive behaviours. A diagnosis of autism now falls on a spectrum of mild (Level one), moderate (Level two) and severe (Level three) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

For more information on the criteria for an ASD diagnosis, click here.


Many children with ASD can also have additional or coexisting conditions such as being gifted, sensory integration issues, developmental delays, or anxiety disorder to name a few. Some may have a single diagnosis while others may have overlapping diagnoses or conditions. If you think your child is presenting with signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or potential coexisting conditions, you can see your family doctor for further assessments and referrals.

Supporting Your Child/Youth with Autism

Many children with autism do not live independently after reaching adulthood, while others can become successful. Intensive, sustained early treatment can make a significant difference for many children with ASD.

There is a broad range of home, school and community-based treatments and interventions, and they can be overwhelming for parents of a child with autism. You should speak to your doctor to help identify resources in your area that may work best for your child.

Treatment for autism usually focuses on lessening associated deficits and family distress, and increasing quality of life and functional independence. No single treatment is best for all children with autism and treatment is usually tailored to the needs of each child.

Parenting a Child with Autism

Parenting a child with autism can be both rewarding and challenging. Autism Speaks Canada provides tips on some things you can consider when parenting a child or youth with ASD:

Educate yourself

Learn everything you can. Visit websites [see below] about children with autism, consult governmental and nonprofit organizations for more information, and stay up to date on current research findings.

Seek the services of an ASD informed team for your child

Ask your doctor for help with coordinating a professional team that may include social workers, teachers and therapists who can help with the resources in your area. You may also want to consider a case manager or service coordinator to help access financial services and government programs.

Make time for yourself, your family and other important relationships

Keep up with the activities you enjoy and maintain your relationships with family and friends. Schedule personal one-on-one time with your spouse and with your other children, and participate in social outings with your friends.

Build a support system

Seek out local groups and parent network organizations for families of children with autism – you may find useful advice! Ask your doctor or child developmental specialist for referrals.

Ask for help

Ask for help if you or your partner feel overwhelmed or depressed, or if caring for your child is affecting your relationship. Ask your doctor for help with finding qualified individuals, couples or a family therapist.

For more information and tips for grandparents, extended family and siblings click here.

Pop Culture Examples of ASD

Recently the media has been drawing attention to the importance of understanding ASD. There are currently two popular shows depicting ASD:

“A Typical” - The story of a teenage boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder who is on a journey to find love and acceptance.

“The Good Doctor” - A young surgeon with Autism Spectrum Disorder relocates from a quiet country life to join a prestigious hospital's surgical unit. Alone in the world and unable to personally connect with those around him, Shaun uses his extraordinary medical gifts to save lives and challenge the skepticism of his colleagues.


Autism: The Road Back

The personal journey of three families with children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It talks to parents, service providers and experts in the field about assessment, diagnoses and options available for treatment, and provides guidance for families trying to navigate their way through the challenges of ASD in the first six years of their child's life.

Links or Useful Resources for Autism:

Woodgate, R. L., Ateah, C., & Secco, L. (2008). Living in a world of our own: The experience of parents who have a child with autism. Qualitative health research, 18(8), 1075-1083

This article discusses the experiences of parents who have a child with ASD. In "living in a world of our own," parents described a world of isolation. Three themes to promote reliance for children and their families who are living with ASD included vigilant parenting, sustaining the self and family, and fighting all the way.

Content References:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Autism Canada (2018) Screening Tools. Retrieved from:

Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved January 02, 2018, from

Geneva Centre for Autism (n.d) Resource Section. Retrieved From:-

Government of Ontario, Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Ontario Autism Program. (n.d.). Ministry of Children and Youth Services. Retrieved January 02, 2018, from

Notbohm, E. (2012). Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew: Updated and Expanded Edition. BookBaby.

Woodgate, R. L., Ateah, C., & Secco, L. (2008). Living in a world of our own: The experience of parents who have a child with autism. Qualitative health research, 18(8), 1075-1083.