Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them. People with autism vary greatly but many have difficulties with everyday social interaction. Autism is often referred to as a ‘spectrum disorder’ meaning that the symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a variety of combinations, ranging from extremely mild to quite severe. People with autism can often have accompanying learning disabilities but everyone with the condition shares a difficulty in making sense of the world.
A child with autism may be perfectly happy one moment, but all of a sudden become sad or angry, or even have a tantrum. This may be because they can’t tell people what they want. Taking the wrong turning or a certain noise could trigger this reaction, or simply parking the car on the wrong side of the road.
Many people with autism have ritualistic behaviour, insistence on routine and sameness. An autistic person may be perfectly happy to go to a familiar shop, but take them to a different shop to buy the same item, and they may become frustrated, withdrawn, even fearful. An unfamiliar space or routine no longer feels safe or secure. The autistic person can find it very difficult to relate from one situation to another.
All people with autism have impairments in social interaction, social communication and imagination. This is referred to as the triad of impairments:
Social interaction (difficulty with social relationships, for example appearing aloof and indifferent to other people);
Social communication (difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, for example not really under-standing the meaning of gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice); and
Flexibility in thinking and behaving (difficulty in the development of play and imagination, for example having a limited range of imaginative activities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively).
Whilst autism, as a term, was only defined 50 years ago, it has probably been a part of the human condition throughout history. However, newly defined disorders inevitably lead to confusion, so here are a few pointers to what autism is and what it is not:
A pervasive developmental disorder involving a biological or organic defect in the functioning of the brain;
Occurs on average in four times as many males as females; 17 males to 1 female for high functioning/Asperger syndrome; 1 male to 1 female for profound learning disabilities.
A spectrum disorder comprising individuals with profound learning difficulties through to people with average or above average IQ;
Associated with known organic causes e.g. maternal rubella, tuberous sclerosis;
Associated with epilepsy or seizure disorders in one third of individuals at adolescence;
In many cases genetically linked (often a family member has autism)
Associated with unusual responses to sensory stimuli;
A life-long disability with a need for correspondingly life-long support in most cases.
Autism is not:
The result of emotional deprivation or emotional stress;
A wilful desire to avoid social contact;
Due in any way to parental rejection or cold parenting;
In any way class related;
A mental illness;
Misunderstood genius (although in a few circumstances some individuals have special abilities in narrow areas);
Not Curable (although improvements can be made in all cases).
Finally, why not read a very short story by Emily Perl Kingsley entitled ‘Welcome to Holland’: