What is Autism?

From the TUC handbook, Autism in the Workplace

Neurological diversity

Autism is an example of neurological diversity, or neurodiversity. Humanity is a neurologically diverse species – people have different neurological make-up, different ‘brain wiring’. A population – whether that is a workforce, the people of a particular country, an age group, etc – is neurologically diverse or neurodiverse.

Autistic people are neurologically atypical or neuroatypical.

Other neurological conditions include dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

People without a neurological condition are referred to as neurologically typical, or neurotypical – or even ‘NT’!


Firstly, it is worth noting that understanding of autism is growing, but is still limited. We have a lot further to go!

The National Autistic Society describes autism as ‘a lifelong developmental disability’. However, some autistic people find this definition quite negative.

A more neutral and descriptive definition might be: Autistic Spectrum Conditions are neurological developmental conditions. They occur when atypical (unusual) brain connections lead to atypical development. These differences in the way the brain functions lead to particular challenges and abilities and unusual development.

Autism is a spectrum

Autism affects different people in different ways.

You may have heard terms such as Asperger syndrome, High functioning autism, Low functioning autism, Classic autism or PDD-NOS (Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified). All are part of the autistic spectrum.

Some of these distinctions may be unhelpful. For example, a person labelled ‘low-functioning autistic’ may find that his/her skills and abilities are overlooked; while a person labelled ‘high-functioning autistic’ may find that his/her needs are overlooked. It is important that each person with autism is recognised as an individual.

“The autistic spectrum covers a very wide range of people, and these people don’t always fit neatly into the available groupings. … Essentially, the people in all the above groups are all a part of the autistic spectrum … The personality and needs assessment of a person on the spectrum should be looked at on an individual basis, rather than on the basis of a label.”
Aspies For Freedom

What the manual says

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the American Psychiatric Association’s classification and diagnostic tool, and provides a medical definition of autism. Its Fifth Edition, abbreviated as DSM-5, was published in 2013. Previous editions had listed ‘Asperger’s Disorder’ separately, but DSM-5 abandoned this practice, and includes a single definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Social communication

People on the autistic spectrum may communicate differently from typicallydeveloping people. A minority do not speak.

Social interaction

Typically-developing people learn through social interaction, from childhood.

People on the autistic spectrum may not do so, and may only learn social ‘rules’ by being taught, by themselves or others.

You can think of this as being similar to how people learn languages. Most people learn their first language by ‘picking it up’ from the people they live with. They may then learn another language by studying it, for example at school.

So, neurotypical people learn ‘social skills’ through social interaction, like you learned your first language. People on the autistic spectrum may not do so, and may have to study to learn ‘social skills’ – like you might have learned an additional language at school.

Many social ‘rules’ are not written down or explained – it is assumed that people will know them. But how is an autistic person supposed to know what s/he is supposed to say or do?

Eye contact may be uncomfortable or difficult for an autistic person.

“I can actually listen better if I don’t make eye contact. It’s an autism thing. Please be understanding.”
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A person with autism may find it difficult to ‘read’ emotions in people’s facial expressions.

A person with autism may find it difficult to ‘read’ social cues eg. when to speak; when to stop speaking; when a conversation is over; how close to stand to someone.

People with autism tend to think literally

However, typically-developing people do not always speak literally. So from an autistic person’s view, neurotypical people can be hard to understand and seem very odd at times! NTs often:

  • say things that they don’t mean (‘I’m going to kill her’)
  • tell you to do things that they don’t want you to do (‘Pull your socks up’)
  • ask questions but don’t want an answer (‘Why is he such a #*@#?!’)
  • ask questions but don’t want an honest answer (‘How are you?’)
  • answer a question with an answer to a different question (‘Are you having your meal break now?’ ‘I’ve got to finish this report.’)
  • use figures of speech (‘You’ve got ants in your pants’)
  • don’t say things they do mean (‘I’m not interested in this subject’)
  • say things in an illogical order (‘It’s time for the shop to close – make an announcement’)
  • laugh when there is no obvious joke (‘Terrible weather – ha ha ha!’)
  • think you have said things that you haven’t (‘You’re saying I’m wrong’)
  • say the opposite of what they mean (they call this sarcasm) (‘Yeah, right!’)
  • expect you to figure this out!

Rules, routines and schedules

People on the autistic spectrum tend to be comfortable when rules, routines and schedules are adhered to, and can become uncomfortable or distressed when they are broken, disrupted or changed.

Special interests

“Many people with autism have intense special interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers. Some people with autism may eventually be able to work or study in related areas. For others, it will remain a hobby.”
National Autistic Society

It is notable that in our society, if an autistic person has a ‘special interest’ in, say, UFOs or train timetables, this may be seen as eccentric or as an unhealthy obsession – but that non-autistic people’s obsessions with boy bands or football teams are usually considered perfectly normal!

Executive function

This is the set of abilities that enable people to translate motivation into action, to:

  • START doing something
  • CHANGE what they are doing
  • STOP doing something once started
  • manage time.

People with autism may have impaired executive function.

Motor function

People with autism may have impaired motor function: balance; movement; co-ordination.

Sensory sensitivity

People on the autistic spectrum may be intensely sensitive (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hyposensitive) to one or more sensory stimuli eg. heat, cold,
sound, light, dark, textures, smells, pain. 

Sensory overload

For many autistic people, the constant bombardment of sound, light, colours, patterns, numbers, temperatures, textures, smells and feelings can become too much.

“My brain lets all this in … It doesn’t seem to have a filter … so I can take in and process loads of information … and think about it constantly … but it can overwhelm me.”


It is little wonder that with all this going on – communication barriers, frustrations, misunderstandings, sensory sensitivity, sensory overload, unexpected changes, rules being broken, discrimination, prejudice – that many autistic people experience stress, anxiety, and sometimes, ‘meltdowns’.

Self-stimulatory behaviours (‘stimming’)

Many autistic people engage in habitual, repetitive movements that provide
comfort and/or stimulation eg. rocking, spinning, jumping, skipping.

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