What Is Autism?

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurological variant that affects how people communicate and interact. As a spectrum condition, autism affects people in different ways and people with autism have varying support needs.


Although people with autism have varying support needs, they may share certain characteristics:

  • Communication differences
  • Social interaction differences
  • Sensory differences
  • Repetitive behaviour
  • Preference for routine
  • Highly focused interests
  • Anxiety
  • Meltdowns and shutdowns


Autism characteristics can present in various combinations with a differing degree of severity. While some autistic people encounter challenges in navigating a neurotypical world, autism should be viewed as a form of neurodiversity, not a disadvantage. People with autism have a different way of thinking, communicating and interacting; these differences can enhance our world.


Roughly 1% of the world’s population is estimated to have autism. In 2021, however, the CDC reported approximately 1 in 44 children in the US is diagnosed with ASD. Autism is diagnosed more frequently in males than in females, although it is suspected that women may receive late diagnoses after their autism was overlooked in childhood.


While the causes of autism are still being researched, evidence suggests a genetic component. Autism is not caused by a person’s upbringing. Importantly, extensive research has shown that there is no link between autism and vaccines.


Autism is not a mental illness, although it is estimated that over one third of individuals with autism also have serious mental health issues, including anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with autism may also experience learning difficulties or learning disabilities; depending on the degree, one person with autism may always require extensive specialist support while another may be able to live independently with minimal learning support. Some people with autism are non-verbal and need alternative tools and techniques for communication.


Early Indicators

The earlier a child receives an autism diagnosis, the sooner that child can receive support to address potential challenges and enable greater independence.


An incredible amount of brain development occurs in the first few years of a child’s life, which means that any interventions during the early years are likely to be more impactful than those made later on in life. Early interventions have been shown to support communication, reduce the development of behavioural issues and greatly improve the quality of life for people with autism and their families.


Early signs of autism (ages 1-3) include:

  • Not babbling or cooing by 12 months
  • Not gesturing by 12 months
  • Not saying any meaningful single words by 18 months
  • Not saying spontaneous two-word phrases by 24 months
  • Losing any language or social skills at any age


Milestones enable parents and physicians to monitor a child’s learning, behaviour and development. Click on the age groups below to see the typical milestones at each age level.


  • Watches faces with interest and follows moving objects
  • Recognises familiar objects and people
  • Smiles at the sound of your voice
  • Begins to develop a social smile
  • Turns head toward sounds
  • Responds to other people's emotions
  • Enjoys face-to-face play
  • Can find partially hidden objects
  • Explores with hands and mouth
  • Struggles for out of reach objects
  • Responds to own name
  • Uses voice to express joy and displeasure
  • Babbles chains of sounds

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  • Enjoys imitating people; tries to imitate sounds
  • Enjoys simple social games, such as “gonna get you!”
  • Explores objects; finds hidden objects
  • Responds to “no”
  • Uses simple gestures, such as pointing to an object
  • Babbles with changes in tone
  • May use simple, single words (“dada”, “mama”, “Uh-oh!”)
  • Turns to person speaking when his/her name is called
  • Imitates behaviour of others
  • Is excited about company of other children
  • Understands several words
  • Finds deeply hidden objects
  • Points to named pictures and objects
  • Begins to sort by shapes and colours
  • Begins simple make-believe play
  • Recognises names of familiar people and objects
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Combines two words to communicate with others, such as “more cookie?”
  • Expresses affection openly and has a wide range of emotions
  • Makes mechanical toys work
  • Plays make-believe
  • Sorts objects by shape and colour
  • Matches objects to pictures
  • Follows a 2- or 3-part command
  • Uses simple phrases to communicate with others, such as “go outside, swing?”
  • Uses pronouns (I, you, me) and some plurals (cars, dogs)
  • Cooperates with other children
  • Is increasingly inventive in fantasy play
  • Names some colours
  • Understands concepts of counting and time
  • Speaks in sentences of five to six words
  • Tells stories
  • Speaks clearly enough for strangers to understand
  • Follows three-part commands
  • Understands "same" and "different"
  • Wants to be like his/her friends
  • Likes to sing, dance and act
  • Is able to distinguish fantasy from reality
  • Shows increased independence
  • Can count 10 or more objects and correctly name at least four colours
  • Speaks in sentences of more than five words; tells longer stories


In Bermuda, the Child Development Programme (CDP) offers free developmental screenings to all children under the age of five. CDP typically recommends screening your child around his or her second birthday but encourages parents who have any concerns to schedule a screening even sooner.


If initial screenings determine the need for a further referral, diagnosis and follow-up appointments are offered through CDP (for children under five) and the Autism Clinic at Child and Adolescent Services (for school age children).


Adjusting to an autism diagnosis takes time. Here are some tips for coping with a new diagnosis.


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