What is Autism?

What is Autism or Aspergers and what is the best definition of the Autism Spectrum?

The official definition of Autism is not useful at all:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. It includes Asperger syndrome and childhood autism.


You can say the same thing about ‘normal’ people too:

Normality is a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. It includes political office seeking and criminality.

Not very helpful either.

Both of them describe the (potential) symptoms and not the cause. Imagine you are asked to define a broken leg:

A broken leg is a condition that affects ambulation, ability to operate machinery, pursuing interests and behaviour. It includes hairline and comminuted fractures.

True but useless. Better is this:

A broken leg is a condition where a bone in the leg has cracked or broken.

There you have it. Clean, concise and clear.

The best definition of Autism and Aspergers


Autism spectrum condition is a term used to describe a relatively rare group of differences in the physical structure of the brain. These differences are grouped together because the individuals affected share a common spectrum of distinct behaviours.


From these simple sentences we can predict that people on the Autism Spectrum will have:

  • Behavioural differences
  • Unique challenges
  • A distinctive view of the world
  • Difficulty in participating in mainstream society

and, by definition:

  • Commonalities in their behavioural differences

And sure enough they do.

What we can not predict is whether the potential differences outlined above are caused by the brain differences or are a way to cope with them.


Modern understanding of Autism Spectrum Condition is that a lot of the behavioural symptoms that are used to diagnose it are not caused by these neurological differences, but are behaviours developed to cope with two things:

  • The individual’s different brain structure
  • Mainstream society

These behaviours have a positive purpose, and succeed to some extent or another....except where they do not.

So how do we know that individuals on the Autism Spectrum have different brain structures

The Autism Spectrum: Similar brains drive similar behaviour

Most humans share similar brains. Because of this, they understand the world in similar ways. and share similar behaviours: Telling stories, gossiping, socialising, group hierarchies, developing friendships... all cultures share these commonalities.

And all these commonalities come from having similar brains. Scientifically, there is no such thing as a mind that is separate from the body. Everything is physically based. Everything. All behaviour starts from the physical brain.

The best proof of this is when someone sadly suffers brain damage and their character changes - often dramatically. They might have massive mood swings, become self-absorbed, get explosively angry over minor things, become over-gregarious, be unable to plan anything....and that is not including the physical effects.

Brain damage however is a traumatic event and Autistic individuals emphatically do not have brain damage. Their brains have just developed in a different way. And so they have different behaviors.

What is Autism? The Autistic Brain.

The big problem with brain research is that we can’t see the brain and cutting it up when dead gives us very little information. Our best tool is to take images of the working brain using MRI scans.

The smallest image we can take is of 2 cubic millimeters of the brain. Two cubic millimeter of the cerebral cortex contains roughly 100,000 neurons (brain cells). Each neuron has about 6,000 connections with neighbouring cells. So we have a total of about 600,000,000 connections in 2 cubic millimeters...and that’s just the start of the complexity.

So brain research is still in its infancy but we can draw some broad-brush generalities from research on the autistic brain. The studies indicate autistic brains can:

  • Show different patterns of activity
  • Tend to be larger in children than the the brains of non-autistic children
  • Have different connections between the brain neurons: Sometimes more chaotic, sometimes more connections
  • Show some differences in the speed of electrical connections
  • Have various specific regional brain differences, ranging from the amygdala to the frontal cortex

We also know that Autistic brains are different because Autistic individuals from a very young share many behaviours distinct from mainstream behaviours, and these behavioural differences continue all through their lives.

One thing we are sure of is that the differences between autistic and non-autistic brains have a genetic component.

Autism, development and genetics

Autism is currently thought to be developmental condition which means It starts at conception and continues to affect the individual throughout their life.

Autism has a genetic basis. It is not an illness. It is a condition.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, genetics and behaviours

We can see in the brain the clearest evidence of physical difference between non-Autistic and Autistic individuals, and that difference is genetically driven.

If we experience life the same way then we tend to have similar behaviours.

And the foundation of our experience of life is how we process information in our brains. Individuals on the Autism Spectrum share a similar range of ways of processing information, mainstream folks share another.

Other factors that drive behaviours are:

  • Environment
  • Hormones
  • Choice
  • Culture
  • Upbringing
  • Experience
  • Wisdom
  • And more....

All these effect how the genetic causes are expressed or how they are coped with.

What is Autism: How is the world experienced differently?

There is no one way that Autistic individuals experience the world. Each person tends to be different. There are similarities otherwise we couldn’t have Autism Spectrum Disorder but different individuals have different mixes.

Defining how individuals on the Autism Spectrum experience the world is fraught with difficulties:

  • The experience is subjective.
  • Comparing individuals’ subjective experiences objectively is very challenging.
  • Defining mainstream experience has the same problems.
  • A major part of defining anything is comparing it to something else. An individual only has the one way of experiencing the world.

As an example, think of describing the experience of having a hand. We can use analogy or metaphor, we can say what hands are useful for, we can describe life without a hand, we can tell how we use a hand but to actually describe the bodily and sensory experience of a hand…. uhhm, that is a challenge.

However we can pinpoint some general differences in the autistic experience:

  • Intensity: More intense emotions, especially emotional states that might not usually be considered strong.
  • Chaos: A predilection to be unable to filter out informational inputs to an extent that simple things can be overwhelming. This could be considered a sensory issue, but information is not considered a sense so we keep it separate.
  • Sensory: Hyperarousal to auditory, visual or tactile inputs, sometimes to an unbearable extent. The smells in a supermarket can be overwhelming, mild sounds can be excruciating.
  • Sensory: Hypoarousal, the opposite of hyper arousal. Not feeling a cut, not noticing a need to go to the toilet.
  • Face blindness (Prosopagnosia): An inability to recognise faces. This can also mean not recognising objects out of context.
  • Bodily awareness (Proprioception): Both of body and movement. Movement and posture is often different in Autistic individuals. An individual might only be able to open a container very clumsily, but dance like an angel
  • Executive Function: These are the skills that tend to be controlled by the frontal lobes of the brain; Planning, organising, impulse control, emotional control...

Mainstream experience and autistic experience

Many people on the Mainstream Spectrum( hehehe...see what I did there?) have some experiences that could be considered similar to the list above. They might have been peopled out, forgotten someone’s face, been shocked by loud noises.... but these are are totally different experiences.

For individuals on the Autism Spectrum their experience is:

  • Constant but often unpredictable: Potentially every day, every hour, every time...on and on and on and on...
  • Inescapable: Nothing will change it - a rest, a cup of tea, a chat with a friend...nope, none of these. Nothing.
  • Often physically or emotionally painful: the sear of flickering lights, the distressing tension of dealing with a four person conversation...
  • Isolating: The prejudice and bigotry of the mainstream. Sometimes direct, sometimes behind the back. Autistic individuals are different. Many mainstream folks make fun of or sneer at difference.

Mainstream experience and autistic experience are very very different, and this whole section will show this clearly.

In this whole section we:

  • Introduce you to the meaning and foundation of the Autism Spectrum (this page)
  • Show how sensory processing differences drive Autistic behaviours (not yet published)
  • Talk about Executive Function and Autism (not yet published)
  • Demonstrate the unique problems that Autistic Individuals face (not yet published)
  • Give an overview of the current state of the theory of Autism (not yet published)
  • Explode some myths about Autism by showing what it is and what it is not (not yet published)
  • Focus on the looming problems of Autism and Age and how they hardly being addressed by society (not yet published)

A note on the terms used throughout this website.

There have been many terms used for Autism Spectrum Condition and its sub-categories: Autism, Aspergers, Aspergers syndrome, Kanners Autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder....

And there are many ways of describing people with the condition: An Autistic person, a person with Autism, a person who has Autism, A person on the Autism Spectrum, a person who has Aspergers, an Aspie...

Some people prefer one terminology, some another. We use nearly all indiscriminately partly out of writing style and partly because we are agnostic about which term is best. We tend not use ‘Aspergers’ or its variants as modern diagnosis no longer uses the term and places everything under the the term ‘Autism Spectrum Condition’.