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This page has been medically reviewed by Stephen Bradford, Director of Clinical Services and Neurodiversity Lead 

What is autism?

Autism is a complex condition that can range in severity. This is why autism is known as a ‘spectrum condition’. If you are autistic you can be anywhere on the spectrum. Many autistic people don't need support to live a fulfilling life, while others may need different levels of support.

Medical understanding of autism has developed in recent years. It used to be said that autism had lots of different subtypes, including Asperger syndrome (also known as high-functioning autism) and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). However, more recently, these subtypes have been categorised within the overarching term, autism.

Some autistic people may experience challenges or differences in some areas of their life, in comparison to individuals who are considered to be ‘neurotypical’. These can include areas such as:

  • Communication
  • Social skills and socialising with others
  • Behaviours (often exhibiting repetitive behaviours)
  • Speech (some autistic people are non-verbal)
  • Sensory processing

It’s important to recognise that being on the autism spectrum doesn’t mean you have a disease or are unwell. It just means that you process information and see the world differently.

At Priory, we offer a range of services which can be accessed at any stage of the condition. We provide and can signpost to additional services if you or someone that you care for has autism, through Priory Adult Care autism services and our private children's services.

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You don’t have to struggle with a mental health condition; expert treatment is available. Get the support you need today by calling us on: 0330 056 6020 or sending an enquiry form online.

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Adult autism diagnosis

In most cases, autistic people receive a diagnosis in childhood or adolescence. However, others don’t get diagnosed with autism until they reach adulthood.

Priory has the expertise to provide autism assessments and diagnoses. Our diagnostic process for autism not only allows us to identify when someone may have autism, but to provide subsequent services to help individuals and their families understand their diagnosis. We can also advise on the best support and services available to support you with your autism, depending on your unique needs and requirements.

For many, receiving an autism diagnosis can bring much needed relief and clarity. It means that you’re able to develop a better understanding of yourself and how you relate to the world. It also means that you can start taking steps towards being better able to manage any challenges you’re facing.

Autism signs and symptoms in adults

It’s important to understand that no two people on the autism spectrum will have the same characteristics. The symptoms of autism can vary from person to person and also depend on the severity of your autism - that is, where you are on the spectrum. For example, if you are considered to have ‘high functioning’ autism, you may just have certain traits that make you seem a bit different, whereas others with more severe autism may have traits that are much more pronounced.

Signs of autism tend to be noticed in early childhood. Children may have difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication such as:

  • Using limited or no speech even after the age of 2
  • Spending long periods of time fascinated in self-play or by a particular part of a toy, such as the wheel of a toy car
  • Not responding to their name at an appropriate age
  • Having only a small variety of facial expressions
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Difficulty with physical contact from parents and relatives
  • Not smiling when other people smile at them

Autistic children may also exhibit repetitive movements such as rocking backwards and forwards or flapping their hands.

In addition, it’s important to understand that autism can be different in boys and girls. In some cases, autistic girls may hide their feelings, seem quieter and appear to be able to cope better in social situations. This can make autism harder to spot in girls than in boys.

The above can all be early signs of autism and often become more apparent in school-aged children when social interaction becomes increasingly complex. However, for some, autistic traits may not be recognised until adulthood.       

Ultimately, autism can affect your ability to relate to others and the world around you, and process information. You may be hyper-sensitive to sensory stimulation such as sounds, smells, taste, textures or colours. You may also prefer predictability, rituals and a fixed daily routine, and find that you become upset or distressed when this changes. Autism is also sometimes characterised by repetitive behaviours, causing you to do or think the same things over and over again.

You may also experience some social challenges if you have autism:

  • Social communicationchallenges with processing language, verbal intonation and tone, figures of speech and literal thinking
  • Social interactionchallenges with understanding non-verbal cues, unspoken social rules, forming friendships, making eye contact and appreciating social contexts. Autistic people can be 'socially awkward' and find many unwritten social rules difficult to manage
  • Social imagination - experiencing challenges in viewing situations from another’s perspective, predicting and understanding feelings and reactions, and foreseeing consequences of events and actions

What causes autism?

The causes of autism are currently the focus of a significant amount of active research. Experts believe that autism may be caused by the way in which the brain develops before, during, or soon after birth, as well as having genetic and environmental influences.

Although the exact cause of autism is unknown, it’s understood that there are a range of inherited, environmental and other factors, which are linked to this complex condition.



Research exploring the causes of autism suggests that particular genes you inherit as a child could play a role in how likely you are to have autism. Having immediate family members such as siblings or parents with the condition can also increase the chances of you having autism.



While genes may make a person prone to autism, some environmental triggers are also thought to play a role. Even if a child has a genetic predisposition for autism, it’s entirely possible that specific interactions with their environment may dictate whether they ultimately show related symptoms.

These environmental triggers may include:

  • Being born prematurely
  • Being exposed to substances such as alcohol or drugs while in the womb

Adult autism support

Autism is something you’re born with; it’s not a medical condition with a ‘cure’. As such, we don’t offer ‘treatment’ for autism at Priory. Rather, we aim to provide people with the support they need to manage things a bit better.

That’s why we work towards making environments as suitable and as predictable as possible, with the most appropriate levels of stimulation, to minimise any anxiety associated with your autism. At the same time, we can support you to manage your anxiety and any other negative emotions you might feel as part of your autism. We can also help you to try to challenge and change any negative rigid thinking that you might have.

At Priory, we specialise in helping people at different points on the spectrum, who may also present with co-occurring mental health conditions. We can provide autism support on an inpatient, day care or outpatient basis, for both adults and young people, depending on their unique needs and presentations.

In addition, Priory Adult Care offers a range of bespoke residential and supported living care for adults with autism, within safe and homely environments. Our services are specifically designed to support individuals in leading active and independent lives. We look to support people to maximise their potential and independence through:

  • Specialised staff
  • Structured personalised programmes
  • Social skills groups
  • 1:1 sessions
  • Therapeutic and educational input

Typically, autism is a lifelong condition. However, getting a diagnosis is key to accessing the best support. Whilst some autistic people may always need support, others are perfectly able to lead independent and fulfilling lives. Get in touch today to find out how we can support you or a loved one with autism.

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0330 056 6020 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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