What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

If you have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), information is processed differently in your brain than most people. An ASD is not the same for everyone, the characteristics can differ per person. These characteristics always have to do with two things.


How you interact with others: that can be difficult, because you do not always understand others well. Empathizing with how someone else thinks or feels is difficult. Conversely, people often do not understand how you experience things.

How you behave: You may find some topics so interesting that you want to know everything about them. It’s like all you can think about is that subject. When you do things, you can get completely absorbed in them. You often repeat those things over and over again.

Autism spectrum disorder

Different types of autism spectrum disorder:

The term ASD has not been used for very long. Previously, people talked about autism and thought that there were all kinds of different types of autism. But research did not provide enough evidence for this. You can have many characteristics of one disorder, but also some of the other. The name autism spectrum disorder is therefore now used for everyone with a form of autism.

Examples of those earlier types of autism are classic autism, Asperger’s and PDD-NOS. These are no longer used. Have you previously had a diagnosis according to one of those types? Then you can continue to use it.

  • Classic autism
  • Asperger’s syndrome

Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

Classic autism:

If you have classic autism, you are especially hypersensitive to external stimuli. For example, it is very difficult to be in a busy classroom or a large office with many people. You also often have difficulty getting along with others. In addition, you repeat some things often and you can become completely absorbed in a particular interest.

Recognizing autism:

Doctors and researchers have been talking about what exactly autism is for years. How we view autism is also changing. For example, features that were typical for autism ten years ago are much less so now.

You can recognize autism by characteristics in two areas:

  1. How you interact with others

If you look around you, you see other people interacting easily. If you have autism, this is often much more difficult. Talking just to chat, without actually talking about anything? That can be quite a task. You can also take expressions very literally, so you do not immediately understand what someone means.

You find it difficult to tell from someone’s face how they feel. Just as it is difficult to imagine how others feel. They may therefore think that you are not interested in them at all, or that you do not take them into account. But that doesn’t have to be the case at all. That makes talking and interacting with other people difficult.

  1. How you behave

If you have autism spectrum disorder, you are often very precise with things. In everyday life you sometimes have difficulty processing information. Because other people say or do things in ways that don’t make sense to you.

You find some topics so interesting that you can hardly think about anything else. For example, if you like geography, you can spend hours browsing the atlas until you know all the countries and their capitals. Or you love dogs, you know almost everything about them and don’t want to talk about almost anything else.

You keep repeating other things. These can be small movements, such as wiggling your feet. But they can also be words or sentences that you say again often. You also often like it when things happen in a certain order and at fixed times. Repeating this can make you feel calmer.

Characteristics of ASD:

No two people are the same. This also applies to people with autism spectrum disorder. However, you often have several of the following characteristics:

You have difficulty getting along with other people.

You are very sensitive to some stimuli, but not to others.

You are completely absorbed in things that you find interesting.

You cannot easily put yourself in the shoes of others.

You don’t like unexpected changes.

You repeat some things often.

You quickly recognize patterns.

Diagnosis of ASD:

It is not that easy to diagnose ASD in someone. For example, it cannot be seen in your brain or in your blood. In addition, everyone has some characteristics that may be associated with ASD.

There are many people who are completely absorbed in their hobby or interest. Or who find it difficult to see from someone’s face how that person feels.

Are you having more and more problems at school, at work or in relationships with other people? And do you recognize some of the characteristics associated with ASD? Then it may be useful to investigate this further.

The first thing you can do is go to your doctor to talk about this. If they think you might have ASD, you go to a psychologist or psychiatrist. They will then investigate whether you have ASD.

Diagnosis in children:

After an initial conversation, the psychologist or psychiatrist will want to know more. For example, additional research is conducted in the form of questionnaires. It is also good to see how you behave in different situations. For example, while playing with your brother or sister, or in class at school.

We will also carefully check whether your complaints are not caused by other things. If you don’t respond to what someone else says, it may be related to ASD. But it can also be due to a problem with your hearing.

Diagnosis in adults:

Sometimes you have been running into problems all your life, without knowing exactly why. Or you don’t have any major problems, but you do notice that things are different for you than for others. You may not discover that you have a form of autism until later in life.

This often happens after a major change, which still causes problems. For example, because something changes at work or in a relationship. The autism spectrum disorder makes it difficult for you to deal with this. It can then help if a diagnosis is made, so that you can receive support to help you further.

Diagnosis in women:

Autism is often less quickly recognized in girls and women than in boys and men. Some researchers think that autism has different characteristics in women than in men. It also seems that women are better at hiding these characteristics. In recent years, more and more attention has been paid to this, and it remains a subject of much discussion.

Causes of ASD:

An autism spectrum disorder is due to a combination of different causes:

  • Heredity

Based on research, it is estimated that heredity plays a role in 8 out of 10 people with ASD. There are newer studies that estimate that it affects 5 to 6 out of 10 people. It is not the case that this is due to a specific gene. This involves hundreds of genes, which with certain changes can cause ASD.

  • Environment

Scientists think the environment also plays a role. This means that you may have a hereditary predisposition, but do not necessarily need to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Some things have already been proven to be related to ASD. The risk of autism is greater with:

  • vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy
  • use of some medications during pregnancy (antidepressants)
  • problems during birth, such as being born prematurely
  • parents who have children at an older age.

Treatment of ASD:

Treatment of ASD

There are no treatments that will make ASD disappear. That is also not the goal of treatment. However, you can get help to better deal with the consequences of autism. Things that you can do yourself, but also things that others around you can do.

In children:

For children, for example, this involves exercises in which you learn to interact with others. Parents are also trained so that they can better help their child with this. There are also exercises for brothers and sisters to learn to deal better with autism.

Because the characteristics differ per child, there are also different treatment methods. For example, for problems with speech, processing stimuli or dealing with emotions.

In adults:

Later in life, you may also experience other problems as a result of Autism Spectrum Disorder. For example, you are often anxious or suffer from gloomy feelings. Treatment for adults is often aimed at learning to deal with such problems.

Consequences of ASD:

If you have autism, your brain processes information differently. Things that are obvious to others are not obvious to you. You notice this in all kinds of ways, throughout your life.

  • Understand something
  • Moving yourself
  • Taking care of yourself
  • Dealing with others
  • Daily activities
  • Participate in the world

Most people with autism have normal to high intelligence. But because you process information differently, it can still be difficult to understand things. For example, because you are oversensitive to stimuli, or not at all.

Other things are going much better. Because you have a great eye for detail, for example. You will then be better at work that requires you to pay close attention. Think of programming on a computer, or tasks where you have to check things.

You may need extra help at school. Not because things are too difficult, but to learn them in a way that suits you better. Or, for example, to look together for ways to make you less likely to be distracted. One in three people with autism also has an intellectual disability. You then need more guidance.

Outlook with ASD:

ASD does not go away. It belongs to you and you keep it for the rest of your life. This can cause difficult situations at times. In your studies or work, for example. Or when you start living on your own. Or when you and your partner are thinking about children.

But autism doesn’t just cause difficult things. Sometimes it can actually help you. Characteristics such as quickly recognizing patterns or a sharp eye for details, for example.

These are characteristics that are useful in some professions. If you develop computer programs, for example, or have to carry out very precise checks. But also when a creative angle is needed, for example with musicians or photographers.

More chance of other diseases:

People with autism are more likely to have other diseases and medical complaints. You are five times more likely to develop a physical illness in your life. For example:

  • Stomach and intestinal complaints
  • Heart and vascular disease
  • Problems with your resistance

Also, people with ASD may develop another condition, such as an anxiety disorder , depression or ADHD . This may be because you have to constantly adapt to the world, or because you have a predisposition for it. Your social life and your environment can also play a role in this. Sometimes you do not recognize those medical conditions quickly enough. For example, because your doctor thinks it is due to your autism and pays too little attention to your complaints. Or because you don’t know how to talk about this with your doctor. That is why it is good to recognize possible complaints in time: in yourself or in your loved one with autism. Then the treatment starts on time.

Tips for people with ASD and their loved ones

  • Advice for people with ASD
  • Advice for loved ones of people with ASD

Advice for people with ASD:

Autism spectrum disorder is difficult to understand for others, but also for yourself. It can therefore help to look up more information if you know that you have autism. By reading books about it, for example, or by asking your doctor about it.


Knowing yourself:

Furthermore, it is nice if you know what you are good at. You can then better look for things that suit you. This also applies to things that you have difficulty with. You can then look for ways to deal with those difficult things. For example, do you have a lot of anxiety because you don’t know what is going to happen today? Then it helps if you learn to make good plans in your agenda.

Talking to others:

It can also help if you tell people around you about this. Of course, you don’t have to tell everyone everything. But if you like to do things a certain way in your work, it is good if others know that too. Furthermore, it can be nice to talk to other people who have autism. This can be done through the Dutch Association for Autism .

Reducing the risk of autism:

You can’t do anything to prevent autism in yourself: you either have it or you don’t.

Because autism is partly hereditary, this may raise questions if you want to have children of your own. Heredity plays a role, but so do influences from your environment. Consider working with toxic substances, air pollution or certain medications during pregnancy. Or, for example, if you have children at a later age, or if there are complications during the birth of your child.

So it is not the case that you will always have children with autism if you have ASD yourself. That chance can differ per person. If this is an important topic for you, you can talk to your doctor about it.

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