What is Autism?

By Andrew Wright, Art Psychotherapist, HCPC reg (UK) BAAT, Mindscape Art Therapy – [Senior Support Worker, Little Amberwood Care Home]

What is Autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects an individual’s behaviour and communication. People with autism may lack social awareness, emotional reciprocity and the ability to sustain conversations. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by severe and persistent deficits in social communication and interaction (American Psychiatric Association 2013). In the UK the Autism Act (2009) led to the government producing statutory guidelines for autism. With a clear pathway of diagnosis, where everyone has a right to an assessment. 

Most parents notice some symptoms of autism when their child is two or three years old but these symptoms can change as the person gets older. The characteristics may be different in girls than in boys so diagnosis can be difficult. There is also a lack of a genetic or medical testing and the impairment may also be accompanied by other conditions such as epilepsy, ADHD and learning disabilities. People with autism may also have a co-morbid mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.

Features of Autism

Wing and Gould (1979) identified a Triad of Impairments with difficulties with social communication, difficulty with social interaction and difficulty with social imagination. People with autism may find it hard to keep eye contact due to an overload of speech, facial expression and body language data to process. They may also be unaware of personal space and may be unaware of non-verbal cues in communication.

They may also exhibit restricted or stereotypical patterns of behaviour and can be hyper (over) or hypo (under) stimulated by their environment. This can result in obsession with a particular topic, self-stimulating behaviours such as finger clicking, hand flapping, and an overload of emotional and sensory information, resulting in ‘stimming’.

According to Martin (2009) Baron-Cohen’s theory of mind can be considered as the fourth impairment for people with autism. As they will find it hard to imagine a world from someone else’s perspective and understand that other people have different thoughts and feelings independent from their own. This can be misinterpreted as a sign of rudeness as they may not be able to see things from another person’s perspective.

Working with autism

These difficulties can have the effect of preventing someone with autism feel the close bonds of relationships, and over compensatory rituals and routine can provide them with a feeling of safety and reassurance. So it makes sense that people with autism find routine very reassuring, although it is important to note that people with autism can adapt to change they just need support with time and preparation given to them so it is not just a sudden change that can make them feel overwhelmed.

Practitioners have advocated the importance of early intervention with environmental stimulation appropriate to a child’s needs is necessary for developing creative thinking in children. As many people with autism may need help with sensory processing to help them balance and regulate environmental stimuli. For instance some people may be sensitive to light or noise while they may need extra tactile stimulation. So in some cases it can be about thinking of the senses as a ‘graphic equaliser’ where people need help to balance their sensory input.

Strategies to encourage social interaction and communication can include the use of visual aids to help promote understanding and reduce anxiety. Carol Gray developed the use of ‘Social Stories’, while pictorial story boards can be useful. TEACCH promotes structured learning environments that encourage visual based engagement and communication. Also helpful is the use of a temperature gauge so they can communicate their feelings.

Creative strategies to help to attune and develop interaction and communication with people with autism. As often for two way verbal conversation can be too overwhelming due to the fact that they struggle to cope with verbal, nonverbal and body language, all at the same time. Arts Therapists encourage use creative mediums such as art, drama and music to engage and aid communication and interaction. Working together on an art object or creating a performance can be a less intrusive way of building a relationship for a person with autism. It may also meet their sensory needs and be a way of discharging emotion with directed movement and action.

Autism and Social Camouflaging

Hull, et al (2017) discusses social camouflaging, which is how people of all genders manage the way others perceive them in social situations. They suggest that people with ASD struggle with this have and it takes a lot of mental effort minimise their social soothing behaviours in public and this can cause stress and anxiety. A person who may seem to be functioning well in society may actually struggle to maintain this.

They also point out that this may account for less girls being under diagnosed with autism as boys will more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviours such as hyperactivity and conduct problems. While girls are more likely to internalise these difficulties leading to difficulties in emotional wellbeing.

This explains why often people with autism can struggle with mental wellbeing and emotional regulation, compared to the ‘neurotypical’ population. So it is useful to help them with coping strategies and when they do feel distress. Ccording to Connoer et al (2018) adaptive cognitive strategies can be successful with anxiety, but they are less successful at helping someone deal with destructive feeling and aggression. As over thinking and rumination can be a maladaptive response.


Conner, C. White, S. Beck, K. Goltx, J. Smith, I. Mazefsky, C.(2018)  Improving emotion regulation ability in autism: The Emotional Awareness and Skills Enhancement (EASE) program. Autism, 1–15. Sage Journals.

Hull, L. Petrides K.V. Allison, C. Smith, S. Baron-Cohen, S. Lai, Meng-Chuan Mandy, W. (2017) “Putting on My Best Normal”: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. DOI 10.1007/s10803-017-3166-5

Martin, N. (2009) Art as an Early Intervention Tool for Children with Autism. Jesssica Kinsgley Publishers

Wing L. and Gould J. (1979) Severe Impairments of Social Interaction and Associated Abnormalities in Children: Epidemiology and Classification. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 9 (1) 11-29

A postscript from Apple House HQ:

Huge thanks go to Andrew Wright, qualified art psychotherapist and valued member of the Summerwood staff team, for kindly sharing this detailed and interesting article he has written for our blog. We are incredibly fortunate to have such a talented and creative team member. We have Andrew’s full permission to share the above article but Andrew remains the copyright holder of the work and no sharing or use of his work is permitted without authorisation from the copyright holder: Copyright: Andrew Wright 2020.

About The Author



  1. Mandy | 1st Apr 22

    Great article on ‘What is Autism’ – puts into words what we experience with our son but we would find so hard to articulate.

    • Applehouse | 7th Apr 22

      Dear Mandy,
      Thank you so much, we really appreciate your comment.
      Best wishes,
      Jane, Apple House HQ

Leave A Comment