What is Autism?
Autism is classed as a lifelong developmental disability and is typically referred to as autism, autism spectrum or an autism spectrum disorder/condition (ASD/C). The word ‘spectrum’ is used because, while all autistic individuals share key areas of difficulty, it will affect them in very different ways. Many will be able to live relatively ‘everyday’ lives; others will require a lifetime of specialist support.
Asperger Syndrome (AS)
is part of the autism spectrum. People with a diagnosis of AS may experience fewer problems with speaking and are often of average, or above average intelligence. They do not usually have the accompanying learning disabilities associated with autism, but they may have specific learning difficulties. These may include dyslexia and dyspraxia or other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and epilepsy. Asperger's is not 'mild' autism.
The key areas of difficulty needed to be given a diagnosis of autism are:
Difficulty with social communication and interaction
– autistic individuals may be able to speak fluently or some may be unable to speak at all. There may also be difficulties understanding gestures, body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, making it difficult to judge or understand the reactions of those they are talking to. They may also take others comments literally and so misunderstand jokes, metaphors or colloquialisms.
– some autistic individuals may find chatting or small talk difficult and therefore struggle in some social situations. Some may appear uninterested in others and find it very difficult to develop friendships and relate to others, while others may enjoy or want to develop social contacts, but find mixing very difficult.
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities including sensory difficulties:
– There may be difficulties preparing for change and planning for the future, coping in new or unfamiliar situations which may result in the person becoming stressed.
It can be hard to create awareness of autism as autistic individuals do not ‘look’ disabled: parents of autistic children often say that other people simply think their child is naughty; while adults find that they are misunderstood.
An autistic child may appear to develop typically as a baby and reach the usual developmental milestones, including early speech. But as they grow into toddlers, they may not display typical social behaviour and speech may be lost.
As a child grows, the typical difficulties present with a diagnosis of ASC are
• Repetitive behaviour and resistance to changes in routine.
• Obsessions with particular objects or routines.
• Poor coordination.
• Difficulties with fine movement control (especially in AS).
• Absence of typical facial expression and body language.
• Lack of eye contact.
• Sensory issues.
• Physical tics or ‘stimming’ (repetitive movements such as finger flicking or arm flapping).
• Tendency to spend time alone, with very few friends.
• Lack of imaginative play.
What causes autism?
The exact cause of autism is still being investigated. However, research suggests that a combination of factors – genetic and environmental – may account for changes in brain development. Autism is not caused by a person’s upbringing, their social circumstances and is not the fault of the individual.
There’s no specific tests for autism. Diagnosis is based on observation of behaviours.
Treatment of ASC?
There is no cure or particular medical treatment for autism. Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults. Much can be put in place to maximise a child’s potential and this is key to a fulfilling life. Appropriate education, speech/language and occupational therapy are all important.
Myths about ASC
An autistic person feels love, happiness, sadness and pain just like everyone else. Just because some individuals may not express their feelings in the same way others do, does not mean that they do not have feelings. Not all autistic people have an incredible gift or savantism for numbers or music.