You’ve more than likely heard the terms “autism,” “Asperger’s,” and “on the spectrum” at one time or another. In fact, they can be used so much that some people can lose sight of their true meanings, how people living with these conditions are affected, and what it means for their lives.
Autism Spectrum Disorders
There are a number of different terms used for autism based conditions, and most are collectively referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). ASD is commonly used to cover the whole range of conditions that have in common the ‘Triad of Impairments’ described below, Language and Communication, Social Interaction, Flexibility and Imagination. The symptoms of this triad are associated with repetitive and restricted patterns of behaviour. More commonly the Social Interaction impairment is of the most significance, as it is always evident, whether it be subtle or more obvious.
Here are some other more specific diagnoses used in the International Classification of Diseases, 10th edition (ICD-10) and the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition (DSM-IV) to cover more or less the same range as autistic spectrum disorders:
Childhood Autism (ICD-10): Used when the person’s behaviour fits the full picture of typical autism.
Autistic Disorder (DSM-IV): This is the same as childhood autism.
Atypical autism (ICD-10): Used when the person’s behaviour pattern fits most but not all the criteria for typical autism.
Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS): This is considered more or less the same as atypical autism.
Asperger syndrome (ICD-10)/Asperger disorder (DSM-IV): Briefly, this is used for more able people who have good grammatical and structural language, and it is also used to consider their special interests.
ASD is about input and output. It’s considered a neuro-developmental disability that has a negative impact on the way sufferers are able to both absorb and communicate with their environment and the people in it. The term “spectrum” tells us that autism, while sharing a some basic commonality between sufferers, comes in so many varieties, it can reveal itself in a range of ways, meaning that no two individuals will be the same. Because of this some people are able to live fairly regular lives with little to no help. Others however may require a substantial amount of support in order to make it through their daily lives. From this point on, I will refer to all of these varying diagnoses as ASD.
The Triad of Impairments
As mentioned above, the challenges of ASD present themselves in three distinct categories – problems with language and communication, social interaction/integration, and flexibility in thinking.
Language & Communication
If you’re having a conversation with someone who has ASD you may find that they have different ways of communicating. For instance, they probably won’t be able to use your body language and tone to pick up additional flavours of your conversation. They may not be able to comprehend slang, sarcasm, and so on. They may take things that are being said quite literally. You may also find that they aren’t able to go with the flow of the conversation, the back and forth. So they may burst out into a conversation that had no segue as an introduction, or they may have trouble realising that a topic has run its natural course and they’ll keep coming back to it.
As you can imagine, creating or maintaining friendships is a difficult task when you have so much trouble accepting social cues and signals. People may find the sufferer oblivious to their comfort levels (e.g. they may stand too close while talking). This can make for a lonely situation. It’s not that people with ASD don’t want to be sociable or make friends, they most certainly do, but they lack the social skills and confidence to do so,. As such they can become extremely anxious in social situations, eternally fearing that they’re going to be seen as weird, insensitive, and unworthy of friendships or relationships – often leading them to prefer being in their own company.
Flexibility & Imagination
People with ASD can do just fine in the normal sense of imagination. In fact, people with the disability are generally of average or above-average intelligence, and this intelligence can often present itself through the arts, with many having unique skills that exceed the average person’s abilities.
What flexibility and imagination refers to though is the ability to think flexibly about changing situations, and adapt to them. For instance, take cues from others in order to, make a prediction on how the other person will react to something. Because of their difficulties with flexibility a sufferer can be constantly surprised by conversations or a situations that they have misread, and can therefore struggle to adapt to the changes that are presented in these. People with ASD develop a preference for routine, and sameness, it makes their lives more manageable if they know that a change is coming in advance, allowing them time to make the appropriate psychological adjustments to their routines.
Flexibility can also limit imaginative activities. For example, children with autism may retreat from games that require flexible contributions of imagination because they’re unable to get on the same wavelength as the other children they’re playing with, so they feel that they’re not playing “right.” Because of this people with autism often prefer to do the same routines over and over rather than attempt variations, and/or they may prefer to work or play in more logical realms. Children may have one or two restricted play interests, or watch the same small selection of programmes again and again. Adults also develop strong preferences, and may wear the same colour clothing again and again, get dressed in a certain order, or eat/do other things in a specific way every time. Adults may also throw themselves headlong into some kind of pursuit – an art, a collection, programming, research into a particular topic, and so on. Happily, this dedication can sometimes lead to greater self-sufficiency because their knowledge of a topic can lead to employment.
Other Symptoms & Difficulties
As well as the triad of impairments, there are also other things that people with ASD might struggle with, such as learning, and having more sensitivity to sensory information.
Difficulties with Learning
Just as ASD in general has its spectrum, so do the learning disabilities that can be associated with the condition. “Learning” here refers not only to school learning, but further along the spectrum, can also refer to learning the tasks that make up day-to-day living like shopping for themselves or how to make a meal. ASD can sometimes bring with it other learning disabilities like dyspraxia, dyslexia, or ADHD.
Take stock of what your senses are telling you right now. Since you’re reading this post the greatest amount of input you’re receiving is visual – these words on your screen. But expand you awareness a little and you can take in the feel of the seat beneath you, the sound of a bird outside your window, the warmth of your laptop, maybe the taste of your tea, a low-level humming of a machine.
Without realizing it you’re actually taking in hundreds of stimuli through your senses. But you’re able to put a dimmer on 99% of them so that you can focus on the one you want the most.
Some people with ASD have no such filters, or they are not as effective as they could be (depending on where they are on the spectrum).
Imagine trying to read this while 10 ghetto blasters have been positioned around you, blasting you with 10 different types of music, all on full. Imagine suffering that while trying to get some work done, or trying to learn something, or trying to make a new friend. You can begin to understand why some people with ASD get so frustrated over what seem like simple tasks.
What causes ASD?
ASD hasn’t been pinned down to any single cause. Currently mental health professionals believe it’s caused by anomalies in the sufferer’s brain itself or in their brain’s functions. Scans have shown that the brains of people with ASD are structured a bit differently than those of the typical person.
There seems to be a trend that family members of people with autism also have indicators of autism or disabilities that are related to the condition. This seems to show that autism might have its basis in genetics.
There are far more dealing with ASD than you may think. Here in the UK it’s estimated that 1 in 100 people fall somewhere on the spectrum – that’s over half a million people, ASD affects men more than women, and it is a lifelong condition.
Is there a cure for ASD?
Currently there is no cure. However there are multiple methods that can be used to enhance a sufferer’s ability to learn and to live a happier, more fulfilling life.
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