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What is Autism? Traits, Causes, Diagnosis, and Autism Coaching and Supports

Updated: Jul 12

Have you ever experienced communication difficulties, extreme sensitivity to rejection, repetitive behaviors, a dislike of change, difficulties with social interaction, or a hyperfocus on a specific interest? 


If you’re experiencing these traits, these may be some of the signs that you’re autistic. 



You’re not alone! Autism spectrum disorder is highly prevalent. In fact, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, approximately 1–2% of the Canadian population is autistic. 


Moreover, boys and those assigned male at birth (AMAB) are more likely to be diagnosed than girls and those assigned female at birth (AFAB). 


The condition is also typically accompanied by medical, mental, and other conditions


If you are experiencing the traits of autism, you can see a Canada autism coach or therapist for support. 


What Is Autism?


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), also known as autism, is a chronic neurodevelopmental condition and neurodivergence. 


The “neuro” aspect of the condition means brain, and the “developmental” aspect indicates that it impacts development. In other words, ASD impacts the way in which a person interacts with the world. 


Autism impacts the areas of the brain associated with how a person perceives and interacts with others, regulates emotions, and expresses thoughts and behaviors. 


Autistic individuals may display communication difficulties, sensory processing issues, struggles with socialization, and a dislike of change, among other things. 


These traits exist on a “spectrum,” as the name autism spectrum disorder would suggest. 


This means that every autistic individual will differ in the traits they display and the severity of the traits. 


Both children and adults can be diagnosed with autism. It is more common to be diagnosed in childhood, but many adults go undiagnosed into adulthood.  


In particular, women, transgender individuals, BIPOC, and other marginalized populations are more likely to go undiagnosed or be misdiagnosed. 


Myths About Autism and What Autism Isn’t


Over the past 20 years, there has been a steady rise in the prevalence of autism within society. 


This has to do with the rise and efficacy of research studies and our understanding of autism. 


Despite this, there are still some widely held misconceptions about autism that can be harmful, stigmatizing, or offensive to the autistic community. 


To enhance your understanding of this condition and debunk some of these myths, here is a list of some truthful statements about autism: 


  • Autism is not a disease.

  • Autism is not a mental health condition.

  • There is no autism epidemic.

  • Anyone of any gender can be autistic.

  • Autistic people are not violent.

  • Autistic people can feel emotions.

  • Some autistic people can speak, some can’t.

  • Vaccines don’t cause autism.

  • Autism is not contagious.

  • Bad parenting does not cause autism.

  • Autism is not something that can be cured.


Did you know all of these? If not, you’re likely not alone. 


Thankfully, there is a whole host of information out there that aims to debunk myths related to autism. Autism Ontario and Reframing Autism are two of those sources.


Autism Traits


The signs of autism vary from person to person based on what traits are present in each individual. They also vary in their severity and impact on a person. 


Some of the common signs include:


  • Communication struggles

  • Difficulties interacting with other people and forming friendships

  • Difficulty with eye contact, gestures, or facial expressions. 

  • Emotion dysregulation

  • Speech and language issues

  • Executive dysfunction

  • Resistance to cuddling or holding

  • Sensory aversion or sensory-seeking behaviors

  • Specific focused interest in certain topics or fascination with details

  • Resistance to change or liking routine

  • Trouble expressing emotions or understanding others emotions

  • Superior abilities in a specific area

  • Repetitive motor behaviors or stimming, such as nail biting, body rocking, slapping arms, or repetitive speech


Some of the communication struggles can include speaking in a robot-like voice, repeating words without not knowing their meaning, having trouble understanding simple questions, and inappropriately approaching social interactions, among other signs. 


Some individuals may not even know they are autistic until the traits start to impact them in key areas of their lives later on, such as at work or school


These traits may also differ across genders. Females are more likely to go misdiagnosed or undiagnosed until adulthood because they may show less stereotypical signs of autism.


Autistic girls and women are more likely to mask or hide their traits to appear more allistic and fit in with societal norms. 


Due to the fact that autistic individuals tend to have varying degrees and ranges of traits, the treatment should be tailored to each individual. 


We recommend checking out this online autism questionnaire by Embrace Autism if you suspect that you’re autistic based on these signs. 


This is not an official diagnostic tool, but it can be a gateway into exploring an autism diagnosis. 


Causes of Autism


There is no known cause for ASD, but there is research to suggest that there may be a rich interplay between genetics and environmental factors that plays a role in the risk of ASD.


There are some genetics disorders, genes, and genetic mutations that appear to be involved in ASD.


To start, autism is hereditary. If one parent is autistic, there is a greater risk of autism among their children. 


In addition, the genetic disorders Rett syndrome and fragile X syndrome seem to be associated with ASD in some individuals. 


In other individuals, genetic mutations can increase a person’s risk of ASD. Some of these genetic mutations are inherited from the parents. 


Along with genetics, there are also environmental factors that may play a part in a person’s risk of ASD. 


There is currently research exploring whether viral infections, medications or complications during pregnancy, or air pollutants play a role in the risk. 


One thing that we know for sure is that vaccines do not cause autism. 


This myth started back in the 1990s, after Andrew Wakefield conducted a study claiming that vaccines and autism are linked. 


This study has been debunked. As it turns out, no one could replicate this study; it did not hold up to scientific standards, and he falsified data. 


This study was so bogus that the researcher who conducted the study had his medical license to practice revoked. 


Since then, there have been numerous studies on vaccines, and there is no scientific evidence to support this claim that vaccines cause autism. 


Autistic Individuals Preference for Identity-First Language for Autism


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies autism as a disorder to be fixed or changed. Many outdated treatment practices stem from this. 


In actuality, autism is a chronic condition that has no cure. Autistic people do not need to be fixed or changed. 


Many autistic individuals also prefer to refer to autism as a difference or neurodivergent condition rather than a disorder. 


Neurodivergent conditions are conditions that cause a person to navigate the world differently. 


One study of 7,000 autistic people suggested that approximately 90% of autistic people prefer identity-first language, with a smaller proportion preferring person-first language. 


These individuals prefer people to refer to them as ‘autistic’ rather than ‘a person with autism’ and see autism as a key aspect of their identity. 


Using an identity-first model, autism is not something that needs to be fixed. Instead, society needs to become more accepting of autism and other neurodivergent conditions. 


As such, we need to remove the barriers that exist that prevent neurodivergent individuals from full participation in society and accept neurodivergent conditions.


Embracing the Strengths of Autism


Based on the fact that the majority of autistic individuals prefer an identity-first language, support for autism should use a strengths-based approach. 


A strengths-based approach is based on the concept of neurodiversity.


Neurodiversity refers to the fact that every human brain differs in the way it perceives information and the way it interacts with the world. 


Due to these brain differences, no two individuals are the same. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. 


These differences make the world a more diverse and stronger space for all. 


Some strengths are common among autistic individuals. 


These include:


  • Hyperfocus

  • Creativity

  • Expertise in their favorite subjects

  • A strong sense of justice

  • Honesty

  • Attention to detail

  • Loyalty

  • Outside-the-box thinking

  • Less likely to follow hierarchies and be driven by societal prejudices

  • Excellent memory


Due to this, some situations may be better suited for an autistic individual to thrive, and others may be better for an allistic individual (non-autistic individual). 


This is how the human population survives. 


Without embracing these differences in strengths, we likely would not be as strong as we are to weather a variety of different situations. 


How is Autism Diagnosed?


There is no universal test that can be used to diagnose autism. Furthermore,  everyone differs in the traits they display and the severity of each of these traits. 


Therefore, healthcare providers should provide an individualized needs-based assessment that is based on your individual traits and accommodation needs as a result of these traits. 


If you are showing signs of autism, your first step is to speak to a healthcare provider. 


You will want to seek out a professional that is trained to diagnose autism, which includes: 


  • Doctors, such as family physicians and psychiatrists

  • Psychologist

  • Nurse practitioners 


This healthcare provider may seek knowledge of the autistic traits you displayed as a child. This is an aspect of developmental screening. 


This includes a closer look at your brain development in core areas such as social, emotional, cognitive, language, and speech areas. 


This may be done using a standard questionnaire where you will answer questions that focus on your development in these areas. 


A formal evaluation using your answers on these questionnaires and behavioral observations shows your strengths and challenges and can help in the process of seeking autism support. 


Autism and Co-occurring conditions and identities


There are a wide range of mental, medical, and other conditions that commonly co-occur with autism. 


These comorbid conditions include:


Mood Disorders


The Center for Disease Control states that about 26% of autistic people are affected by depression. 


Some of the reasons for this comorbidity include dysregulation of emotions, social isolation, and socialization issues, among other reasons. 


Moreover, many symptoms of depression, such as sleep issues, suicidality, social withdrawal, and a lack of eye contact can overlap with autistic traits. 


This can make it more difficult to diagnose autism and depression separately because the signs of one of the conditions may hide or look like the signs of the other condition. 


Anxiety Disorders


Autism is commonly comorbid with a range of anxiety disorders. One systematic review of the literature on autism and anxiety disorders found that 40% of autistic children and 50% of autistic adults experience at least one anxiety disorder. 


This includes generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, social anxiety, and phobias and fears. The most common form of anxiety disorder among autistic children is specific phobias. 


Social anxiety is also quite common. Certain genetic disorders. such as Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), are common in autistic individuals. About 25%–33% of FXS individuals are also autistic. 


Those who are autistic and also have FXS are at increased risk for social anxiety


Anxiety disorders and autism create a loop with one another, such that autism can fuel anxiety and vice versa. 


The anxiety can exacerbate certain autistic traits, including repetitive movements, insistence on sameness, sensory overload, and self-harming behavior.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)


In addition to mental health conditions, neurodevelopmental disorders can also commonly co-occur with autism. ADHD is one of them and you may benefit from the support of a coach


ADHD and autism occur together in 50 to 70% of individuals according to scientific literature. There is even a name for this comorbidity, known as AuDHD.


These neurodevelopmental disorders can share overlapping traits and have a double impact on emotion regulation, executive functioning, motor function, and impulse control.


One study even showed that impaired executive functioning could act as a precursor for both autism and ADHD (Otterman et al., 2019).


An ADHD diagnosis and autism diagnosis can be difficult to get separately because both conditions often have overlapping traits.


Learning difficulties


Learning disabilities are among the most common co-occurring conditions with autism. 


In fact, some studies suggest that about 1 in 3 autistic individuals also has a learning disability (Rydzewska et al., 2018). Moreover, based on 2020–2021 statistics, if you have a learning disability, you are 22 times more likely to be autistic.


ASD is not a learning disability, but it can impact learning through the impairment of verbal and language skills, social interaction, executive function, and motor control. 


Other Conditions


Along with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and learning difficulties, autistic individuals are also more likely to experience pain disorders, sleep issues, epilepsy, metabolic issues, and gastrointestinal issues. 


Intersection with Identity


Though this isn’t a condition, we also thought it might be interesting to note that autistic individuals are also more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ or neuroqueer. 


Support for Autism


There isn’t one treatment that is used by autistic individuals. The treatment approach will differ from person to person, and it should take a multimodal, individualized, and needs-based approach.


These approaches, when combined, support autistic individuals in identifying their unique strengths and using them to their advantage while simultaneously finding ways to accommodate their challenges. 


This could include coaching, therapy, and support groups. 


Autism Coaching


Coaching can help autistic individuals develop strategies to navigate an ableist world, including discovering what accommodations work for them and ways they can support their sensory needs. 


This may include figuring out that you may benefit from noise-cancelling headphones, a remote workplace, or microbreaks to succeed in the workplace and/or school. 


If preparing for your initial coaching session causes anxiety, we have put together a guide to support you. This is one way you can accommodate yourself.


Coaches will focus on helping clients recognize strengths, build self-awareness and confidence, and develop strategies for success. 


Autism Therapy 


This form of therapy, also known as neurodivergent-affirming therapy, involves therapy that affirms your autistic identity and considers autism to be an identity rather than a condition that needs fixing. 


The autism therapist will help you find ways to navigate a world that was not built for autistic individuals. 


You will be seen as the expert in this situation. You will be supported in understanding the challenges you go through as an autistic individual and uncovering how ableist societal systems can be disabling. 


Multiple therapeutic modalities may be used with autism to address the co-occurring mental health challenges you may experience. 


These approaches include cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, strengths-based therapy, and internal family systems therapy, among others.


Autism Support Groups


If individual therapy or coaching is not your style and you are looking for more group-based support, autism support groups may be the right fit for you


These support groups allow you to interact with individuals who are a part of the same community as you and discover resources and ways to navigate the world that are shared among autistic individuals. 


 One support group you can join is the Blue Sky Learning #ActuallyAutistic support group, which is a support group run by Katy (a qualifying autistic therapist). 


 These groups will be held on the first Wednesday of each month, starting on September 4th, 2024. You can sign up via EventBrite. 


Book a Free Consultation With Blue Sky Learning  


About the team


Blue Sky Learning team members embody values of compassion, empathy, and person-centered approaches. 


Blue Sky Learning provides the opportunity for students, professionals, parental guardians, and educators to connect with them regarding individual concerns and areas of growth. 


Blue Sky Learning strives to provide a service where clients feel safe, supported, and intersectionality understood. 


Blue Sky Learning aims to reduce stigma and shame cycles, deepen client understanding of internalized ableism, and empower areas of avoidance to increase your value of motivation.


Book a free consultation


Are you seeking a Canada autism coach or therapist? 


Book a free 20-minute consultation with one of the Blue Sky Learning team members by emailing hello@blueskylearning.ca or head on over to the Blue Sky Learning website.




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