Autism (also called autism spectrum disorder), is a lifelong, developmental condition. It affects the way a person communicates, interacts and processes information.

Characteristics of autism

Every autistic person is different and has different experiences. But, there are some characteristics that are common in autistic people.

These characteristics are ways in which an autistic person can differ from a neurotypical person (someone who does not have a neurodevelopmental condition like autism or ADHD).

The way these characteristics show themselves can change with age and the environment.

Autistic people may:

  • communicate, understand and interact with other people in a different way
  • experience sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures differently
  • find unfamiliar and unpredictable situations and social events more stressful
  • thrive when they’re in a familiar routine


Autistic people can sometimes mask their autism by trying to act like everyone around them. This means autistic people may appear like everyone else in certain environments. However, masking requires a lot of effort. It often can only be done for a limited time, and can lead to exhaustion. Masking is not a conscious choice, and an autistic person may not be able to start or stop masking at will.

If an autistic person is masking, other people may not realise how challenging or stressful a certain environment or situation is.

Speak to your GP practice or health visitor if:

  • you think you or your child might be autistic, and that a formal assessment is needed to understand you or your child’s needs

They can arrange for further assessment if needed.

Read more about diagnosing autistic children

Read more about diagnosing autistic adults

Autism is different for everyone

While there are common signs of autism, it’s a very varied condition. No two autistic people are the same. The word ‘spectrum’ refers to the range of characteristics shown by autistic people, and the variety of ways they experience the world.

Some autistic people might need more support than others to live the lives they want to lead. The way autism affects you can change as you grow and experience different environments.

Other names people might use for autism

In the past, autism was broken down into several different diagnoses, including:

  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • autistic disorder
  • Kanner’s Syndrome
  • childhood autism
  • atypical autism
  • Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

It’s now recognised that autism is a spectrum and it’s not helpful to sub-divide into different diagnosis. Therefore, these names have been replaced with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism for short. People also use the term ‘autism spectrum condition’ (ASC).

Talking about autism

Most autistic people prefer using the term ‘autistic’ to describe themselves. This is known as identity-first language (for example, “I’m autistic”). They consider autism to be part of who they are, and not something that can be separated from this.

For a long time people used the term ‘person on the autism spectrum’. This is known as person-first language. Some people still prefer this.

This page will mostly use the term ‘autistic’.

If in doubt, you can always ask an autistic person what term they’d prefer.

Causes of autism

Autism is thought to be mostly genetic, involving hundreds of genes. Autism can run in the family, but it cannot be predicted. Autism can develop when there’s no family history. Having a family history of autism doesn’t mean a child will be autistic.

How common is autism?

At least 1 in 100 people in Scotland are autistic. The true number may be higher. For example, statistics from the Scottish Government suggest 3.6% of children attending school are autistic.

Autism can often be recognised and diagnosed in childhood. But, people might not be diagnosed until adulthood. Research suggests that women, those assigned female at birth, and minority ethnic groups are more likely not to be diagnosed until later in life.

Early support can be helpful for autistic people. But, even if you’re not diagnosed until adulthood, getting a diagnosis may help you identify your strengths and the things you struggle with. It may also help you find support.

Other conditions

Autistic people are more likely to have another neurodevelopmental condition like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They may also have difficulties with language development, have a learning disability, or both.

People with 1 diagnosis may also have traits of other neurodevelopmental conditions.

Autism can be associated with some genetic conditions like Down’s syndrome and fragile x.

Autistic people are more likely to experience low mood or anxiety. This can include specific anxiety related conditions like situational mutism. They can also experience eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

Last updated:
24 April 2024