What is Autism?

Autism is not an illness. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, which means that we process information differently than non-autistic people and it is a spectrum with different support needs. We are autistic all our lives and if you know an autistic person, you only know an autistic person. We are all different. This is important because much of the effort in recent years has gone into looking for ‘cures’ rather than understanding how to support and help autistic people to verbalise, socialise and manage their difficulties. Watch our video on typical autistic traits (in Portuguese).


The term neurodiversity was coined by the autism community and popularised in 1998 by Australian sociologist and autistic Judy Singer, who classified certain neurological conditions as natural variations of human diversity, rather than diseases or disorders. Just as there are people of different races, genders, eye colours and hair types, there are also different brains and neurological predispositions, with different cognitive, affective and perceptual functions. Atypical (neurodivergent) neurological development, as well as typical (neurotypical) development, are both biologically natural and necessary events, and part of neurodiversity as a whole. The concept of neurodiversity encompasses: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia; when the concept was developed, but today, some authors consider other neurological and mental health conditions as part of neurodiversity.

Diagnostic criteria*


Difficulty with emotional reciprocity with non-autistic people, i.e. starting a conversation with others, maintaining the flow of conversation, sharing interests and interacting socially.


Difficulty with non-verbal communication, or difficulty understanding, decoding and replicating body language, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, etc.


Difficulties in developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.


Stimming or repetitive motor movements, or the use of objects or speech, in a repetitive and constant manner.


Need for maintaining and adhering to routines or ritualised patterns of verbal or non-verbal behaviour.


Different intensity and focus on specific interests (e.g. trains, politics, animals, books or something specific like a characteristic insect behaviour).


Hyper- or hypo-sensitivity, which are characterised by low or high reactivity to sensory stimuli, such as sound, light, touch, taste, pain or any sensory experience.

*Note: language taken from the DSM-5

See more on the diagnostic criteria.

The spectrum and support needs

Within the Autism Spectrum, there are many different difficulties, strengths and support needs for each autistic individual. The levels of support needs can vary depending on age, social circumstance and other variables, and is therefore not static.

However, the spectrum is not from ‘low functioning’ to ‘high functioning’, but rather a circular spectrum where each autistic person has different difficulties.

A greater need for support is usually not associated with autism, but with common co-occurrences in autism, such as apraxia, aphasia, dyspraxia, and chronic illnesses, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and others.

What causes Autism?

Autism is genetic, but there are still some gene variations that we don’t know how they originate.
When we talk about environmental causes, we are NOT referring to vaccines, food or environmental causes for the child, but rather environmental causes that can affect the genetic make-up or neurological development before birth (not after). More recent studies indicate the following possibilities: advanced age of the parents at the time of conception, prenatal exposure to air pollution or certain pesticides, maternal obesity, diabetes or immune system disorders, extreme prematurity or very low birth weight, any labour difficulties leading to periods of oxygen deprivation in the baby’s brain and lack of prenatal vitamins.
However, these factors alone are not likely to cause autism. Instead, they seem to increase the likelihood of a child developing autism when combined with genetic factors.

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