What is Autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people. The condition also affects how they make sense of the world around them.
Autism is a spectrum condition which means that some people can be at one end of the spectrum with lesser difficulties and another person with autism can be at the opposite end of the spectrum with severe difficulties. Whilst each person will share the three main difficulties of social interaction, social communication and social imagination, each person is affected differently by these difficulties.
People with autism may also experience sensory integration difficulties which mean they can experience over or under sensitivity to sounds, touch, taste, smells, light or colour.
Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning difficulties and need a lifetime of specialist support.
Who gets Autism?
Statistically Autism affects more males than females. It is unclear why this is; it could be because of genetic differences between boys and girls or that the criteria used to diagnose autism are based on the characteristics of male behaviour. Until we know more about the causes this will remain unclear.
What difficulties do people with Autism experience?
People with Autism have said that to them, the world is a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of. This can cause them considerable anxiety.
The three main difficulties that people with Autism experience are sometimes known as the ‘triad of impairments’. They are:
Difficulty with social Communication – People with Autism understand language very literally, so they think people always mean exactly what they say. This makes it hard for them to understand slang; for example when someone says “it’s cool” meaning “it’s good”, a person with autism will take that to mean “it’s a bit cold”.
Taking language very literally can also mean that someone with Autism will have trouble understanding jokes, sarcasm and tone of voice, as well as asking repetitive questions.
Difficulty with Social Interaction – People who have Autism have to learn social interaction; it doesn’t come easily to them. This is because they can have trouble recognising other people’s emotions and expressing their own. This means they may appear to be rude or insensitive and prefer to spend time alone rather than with other people.
People with the condition have trouble understanding the unwritten social rules most of us know without realising, so they may stand too close to another person or start an inappropriate subject of conversation. All this means it can be hard for people with Autism to form friendships.
Difficulty with Social imagination – Social Imagination allows us to understand and predict other people’s behaviour. Autistic people struggle to do this, which hinders them when it comes to forming relationships. They find it difficult understand the concept of danger, prepare for change or plan for the future and to cope with unfamiliar situations.
Difficulties with social imagination shouldn’t be confused with a lack of imagination. Many people with Autism are extremely creative.
Aswell as the ‘triad of impairments’, there are other characteristics of Autism:
A love of routines – As the world can seem like a confusing mass to a person with autism, routines become very important. This is so they can know exactly what will happen each day. A routine can extend to travelling the same way to work or school each day or eating the same food for breakfast.
Once a person with Autism has been shown the ‘right’ way to do something they might struggle to take a different approach as change can be very uncomfortable.
Sensory Sensitivity – This can occur when one or more of the five senses are intensified or under-sensitive. A person who is hypo-sensitive (under sensitive) may experience difficulty seeing objects as they appear quite dark, they may not acknowledge particular sounds and have a high pain threshold. A person who is hyper-sensitive (over sensitive) may not like to be touched as it feels painful, they may experiences sounds very loudly and find normal smells to be intense and overpowering. For more information click here
Autism and Asperger Syndrome
Asperger Syndrome is a form of autism. There are many similarities with autism but people with Asperger syndrome have fewer problems with speaking and are often of average or above average intelligence. They not usually have the accompanying learning disabilities that can be associated with autism but they may have specific learning difficulties which can include; dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and epilepsy.
Autism is often diagnosed alongside other conditions, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities. It is important that support for somebody with more than one condition meets all their needs. For more information about the related conditions click here.
Is there a cure?
There is no ‘cure’ for autism but there are some approaches that people use to help with various difficulties they experience. It can be hard to know which strategy is right for you and the person you care for; no two people with autism are the same and what may work for one person, may not work for another.
Before choosing an approach it is best to find out as much information as you can about it. Any approach should be positive, build on strengths, discover potential and increase motivation. Some stratagies include;
- Behaviourial and developmental interventions
- Biomedical interventions
- Motor and sensory interventions
This list is not exhaustive. For further information about approaches and strategies click here.
What should I do if I think my child has autism?
If your child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) it can be a positive thing. It means you have an explanation for some of the difficulties your child may be experiencing and it also give you access to to services and support.
The first person you approach id your GP or health visitor. It might be helpful to take along a list of behaviours and characteristics that make you suspect your child as ASD. Once your GP or health visitor is convinced of your child’s difficulties they should make a referral for a formal assessment (diagnosis).
For more information about assessments click here.
Getting a diagnosis for an adult
The process of getting a diagnosis for an adult can be more difficult than for children. The first step is to speak to your GP and ask for a referral to psychiatrist or clinical psychologist; preferably one with experience of diagnosing autism. Your GP needs a reason to refer you for diagnosis so you will have to explain why you think you have autism and how a diagnosis will benefit you. It may be helpful to take someone with you. For more information about presenting your case click here.
Caring for someone with autism
An autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is for life so your child will need different support throughout the different stages of their life. People with ASD may appear to behave unusually and there will generally be a reason for this; it can be an attempt to communicate, or a way of coping with a particular situation. Knowing what causes the challenging behaviour can help you develop ways of dealing with it.
It is a good idea to access the services and support around you to help you understand what challenging behaviour means. The National Autistic Society can help you find services in your area and they have a helpline open Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm, 0808 800 4104. www.autism.org.uk has a lot of information that may be useful. Alternatively, Solihull Carers Centre has two specialist support workers who can help you find services in the local area and who understand what you are going through and the support that you need. Contact us on 0121 788 1143.