Autistic spectrum disorder

Content last reviewed: October 2017



Autism is a developmental disorder; it is neither a learning disability nor a mental health problem.  However, some people with autism will have an accompanying learning disability and/or a mental health condition.

Leo Kanner (1943) was the first person to describe and name a pattern of behaviour he observed in a small group of young children, which he termed ‘Early Infantile Autism’ (later known as Kanner Syndrome). A person given this diagnosis will be on the more severe end of the spectrum and will probably (but not always) have learning disabilities too.

The term “autism” is used as an umbrella term for all conditions on the autistic spectrum, including Asperger’s syndrome.  It is used in the National Autism Strategy, Fulfilling and Rewarding Lives (Department of Health, 2010), and adopted by key autism representative organisations, including the National Autistic Society (NAS).

Autism is known as a spectrum condition because the difficulties it causes can range from mild to severe. The three main areas of difficulty shared by all people with autism are known as “the triad of impairments” [1]. These are:

  • Social communication (e.g. problems using and understanding verbal and non-verbal language, such as gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, idioms and abstractions)
  • Social interaction (e.g. problems in recognising and understanding other people’s feelings and managing their own)
  • Social imagination (e.g. problems in understanding and predicting other people’s intentions and behaviour and imagining situations outside their own routine)

People with autism may experience heightened or reduced sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours. They often prefer to have a fixed routine and can find it difficult to cope with change. Many people with autism may also have other conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a learning disability, dyspraxia and mental illness.

Asperger syndrome

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism. It is often a 'hidden disability', and people with Asperger’s will very often fail to display any visible signs of autism, and yet present the same triad of impairments. People with Asperger’s syndrome have fewer problems with speaking and are often of average, or above average, intelligence.

A brief background to Autism legislation

‘Valuing People – A New Strategy for Learning Disabilities for the 21st Century’ (Department of Health, 2001) and ‘Valuing People Now’ – (Department of Health 2009 – 2010) detailed the Government’s national strategy for people with learning disabilities  Both strategies make key references to the barriers faced by people with autism.

In 2009, The NAS led a campaign to get the Government to recognise and support autistic people.  This led to the 2009 Autism Act – the first ever disability-specific law in England.

The act placed a duty on the Government to produce a strategy for adults with autism (this was published as ‘Fulfilling and rewarding lives’, 2010).  The same year, the Government also published statutory guidance for local councils and local health bodies on the implementation of the strategy.  

After feedback from adults with autism, parents, carers and professionals, a new strategy - Think Autism - was published in April 2014.  In January 2016, the Government published a progress report on the new strategy looking forward over the next 18 months with a number of refreshed actions building on progress made.  The 2010 statutory guidance was updated in March 2015.

Progress towards meeting the Government’s autism strategy is reported every two years to Public Health England by means of a self-assessment framework with the results being published in the public domain.  The next submission will be October 2018.

In terms of a local strategy, this Council is working with Bedford and Luton Borough Councils and the Bedfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group to develop a unified commissioning strategy to sit across Bedfordshire.  This work is currently in progress.



[1] Wing, L. & Gould, J. (1979), "Severe Impairments of Social Interaction and Associated Abnormalities in Children: Epidemiology and Classification", Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9, pp. 11–29.


Last updated Monday, 9th October 2017