Imagine that the messages you are receiving from the world are so scrambled and distorted that ordinary things just don’t make sense. Your world is a jigsaw puzzle of scattered pieces. This is what daily life can be like for people with autism.

Not surprisingly, when you can’t understand clearly what’s going on and you can’t communicate effectively with anyone, you retreat into you own world, turning away from speech and avoiding eye contact. You find it hard to understand other people’s feelings, and other people find it hard to understand you.

Autistic children and adults try to cope in a number of ways. In an attempt to create order from the jumble of their senses, they may develop obsessive patterns of behaviour – insisting on going the same way, doing the same things. Or they may develop apparently irrational fears.

It is usually parents who first notice “something strange” about their young child's behaviour. Children may not play imaginatively with toys or other children, they may seem indifferent to what’s going on, and/or talk “at” people in an odd, repetitive way, paying little attention to their responses. Some autistic children also behave in a challenging way, screaming or biting and kicking other people, perhaps because they are anxious and frightened. One theory is that autistic children are supersensitive to certain sounds, which can make them irritable, frustrated and even hysterical. “It’s as though he’s permanently at an airport and hearing through the loudspeaker system”, said one mother about her autistic son.

Autism is far more than a problem of behaviour. It is a complex and variable form of disability affecting four times as many boys as girls. Three quarters of autistic children also have learning difficulties or other disabilities; while a tenth have a special skills such as music or art.

There are different theories about what causes autism. Research shows that a range of conditions – from maternal rubella (German measles) and lack of oxygen at birth, to complications of childhood illnesses – can affect brain development before, during or after birth. Other experts believe that the M.M.R. (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination or food sensitivity may be to blame, although this is a highly controversial area. There is also a school of thought that over-compression of the skull during birth has caused head pain, which autistic children may try to relieve by head banging. From a bioenergetic or “healing” perspective, autism is the manifestation of a great imbalance of energies at a cellular level. Healers describe these as “very low-power energies over a wide range of frequencies which affect electrical, magnetic and chemical processes in the body”.

Whatever the cause, the result is a sensory-processing disorder, so that the autistic person receives information in a distorted and disorganized fashion, in turn disrupting their ability to communicate. It’s vital to spot autism early in a child’s life if they are to be helped out of their isolation – and if their families are to receive the necessary support.