Autism (takiwātanga)

Autism is also known as autism spectrum and ASD

Autism (takiwātanga) is a difference in development that affects communication, social skills and behaviour. If your child does have autism, there are services available to support your child, you and your whānau.

On this page, you can find the following information:

Key points about autism

  1. Autism (takiwātanga) is a difference in development that affects communication (verbal and nonverbal), social skills and behaviour.
  2. Children with autism can have a wide range of challenges and strengths, and these can vary with age and over time in an individua.
  3. If your child does have autism, there are services available to support your child, you and your whānau.

Watch an animated film (5 minutes 30 seconds) providing an introduction to the autism spectrum. It was created as part of the UK Amazing Things Project. The video is available in a range of languages at

(Amazing Things Project, UK, 2017)

What are the names for autism?

Takiwātanga means in his, her or my own time and space. It comes from a Māori phrase for autism – “tōku/tōna anō takiwā”.

There is no single way of describing autism that everyone agrees on. People may refer to autism, autism spectrum, the spectrum and ASD. People with autism often prefer to identify as autistic, an autistic person, a person with autism or as an autistic individual. In the health system, it's often called autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

What is autism?

Autism is a difference in development that affects:

  • communication (verbal and nonverbal)
  • social skills
  • behaviour.

Communication and social skills develop in children at different rates. Communication involves many different skills. Children learn to understand what people say to them; speak clearly and use words and sentences to talk and get their message across; understand and use gestures, signs and body language; look, listen and take turns in a conversation. Read more about how children learn to communicate.

"It is common for me and other people with autism to be unable to say the words to describe what is bothering us. It's also hard for us to figure out that other people don't experience the world the same way we do".

Children with autism often have differences in the way they behave. They can sometimes enjoy a narrow range of interests which they like to repeat and they may also like to play with toys differently than other children. Children with autism can sometimes make unusual movements with their body. They may have more difficulty with change than other children.

Read more about the signs and symptoms of autism. 

Children with autism interpret the world differently

Children with autism interpret the world and what is happening around them differently than other children.

Autism is different for every child who has it

When people talk about autism spectrum, they are referring to the wide range of differences in children with autism. These differences can vary with age and can also vary over time in a child.

Rather than thinking about your child with autism as sitting somewhere on a line from ‘not autistic’ to ‘very autistic’, imagine each of their skills in separately. Your tamariki will have strengths in some areas and challenges in others. See a comic strip explaining these ideas. 

How common is autism?

Overseas figures vary from about 1 in 59 to 1 in 100. There is not much information about how common autism is in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Autism is more common in boys than girls. But this may be partly because not all girls with autism have been diagnosed.

It might seem like there are more children with autism now than in the past. This is probably because of better recognition than in the past. It could also be because of changes in autism diagnosis.

Autism occurs in children and adults – it is usually diagnosed in childhood. Sometimes a diagnosis is not made until the teenage years or adulthood when social demands exceed a person's abilities.

What causes autism?

We don't know exactly what causes autism but it is likely to be a combination of factors. Children with autism are more likely to have a similarly affected family member. This suggests genetic factors play a part.

Some children will have a rare medical condition that may be associated with autism.

Extensive research shows that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine does not cause autism.

Autism awareness for kids

An animated film (3 minutes 0 seconds) for primary school children. It aims to create more awareness of the autism spectrum in primary school children. This may be useful for classmates - to set the tone for an inclusive school environment.

(Marvellous Max Project, Australia, 2015)

Learn more

Autism-takiwātanga ASD KidsHealth NZ
Autism spectrum disorder information
Ministry of Health, NZ
Pasifika Autism Support Group  NZ
Altogether Autism NZ
ASD information Ministry of Education, NZ
ASD information Raising Children Network, The Australian Parenting Network, Australia
Visual strategies for ASD Use Visual Strategies
National Autistic Society UK
Online safety guide for people with autism spectrum disorders
Understanding Autism Future Learn. Online course and fee applies. You don’t need any prior experience or qualifications to do this course but it might be of interest to practitioners in the field of autism, healthcare workers, autistic people, and parents or carers.


New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline (2nd ed.) Ministries of Health and Education, NZ, 2016

Information for healthcare providers

Bowden N, Thabrew H, Kokaua J, et al. Autism spectrum disorder/takiwātanga – an integrated data infrastructure-based approach to autism spectrum disorder research in NZ Autism. 2020 Jul 17;1362361320939329.
Te tau tītoki – a framework for supporting people on the autism spectrum Te Pou, NZ, 2019
NZ autism spectrum disorder guideline Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education, NZ, 2016
Video and slide sets – overview on referral of autism spectrum disorder New Zealand Guidelines Group, Ministry of Health, NZ, 2015
ASD publications Ministry of Health, NZ, 2014
ASD diagnostic instruments review – 2011 NZ Guidelines Group, Ministry of Health, NZ, 2011
What does ASD look like? NZ Guidelines Group, Ministry of Health, NZ, 2010
Tips for talking with parents Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US


The quote from people with autism is reproduced from the New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline (2nd ed.), as allowed by the Guideline's copyright policy. The quotes are copyright New Zealand Ministries of Health and Education.


Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Health Navigator NZ as part of a National Health Content Hub Collaborative.


Credits: KidsHealth NZ. Last reviewed: 28 Jun 2021