Autism is a developmental disability affecting many areas of a person’s life, stemming from differences in the way the brain is “wired” and consequent differences in processing information. The autistic spectrum is wide: at the low-functioning end people may be unable to live independently with severe difficulties in using language and relating to others while at the high-functioning end (including Asperger’s Syndrome) people may possess superior intelligence but have low emotional intelligence and difficulties in social communication.
To be diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) a lead professional (usually a paediatrician or clinical psychiatrist and sometimes an educational psychologist) must be able to see the “triad of impairments” in the person. This term coined by Lorna Wing in the 1990’s is usually explained as difficulties in:
- Social interaction
- Flexibility/adaptability of thought
There are additional differences that are very commonly experienced, but are not part of the diagnostic criteria as yet, in particular differences in sensory processing. Some people are hypo-sensitive to stimuli: this means they are under-sensitive and may not appear to notice pain. It is much more common for people with autism to be hyper-sensitive, i.e. have unusual sensitivity to sensory input, very commonly to noise, becoming very easily over-loaded and distressed by high-pitched, constant or sudden sound. Sensitivity may be in relation to any of the 5 senses (hearing, sight, taste, touch, smell) and additionally to the sense of balance and to proprioception (knowing where the body is in space).
Other common differences are in sustaining attention (tending to be highly distractible), motor co-ordination and organisation but these do not affect everyone on the autistic spectrum. Most people with autism are highly anxious and this can interfere with their ability to manage situations and lead a mentally healthy life. Difficulties with social understanding also make them highly vulnerable to bullying or abuse. Although there is no cure for autism, interventions of many kinds can be very helpful, particularly during the early years and while at school.
Being autistic is being different, not worse or better than others, but definitely different. People with high-functioning autism can achieve very highly in their chosen field due to an ability to focus deeply on something that is of interest. Some autistic people who are low functioning in many ways have an extraordinary (savant) ability and can also gain much satisfaction from their enhanced sensory awareness. Most people with autism are visual, rather than auditory learners, and many have amazing facility for recalling facts. The main difficulty for people with autism can be the lack of understanding amongst the non-autistic population but awareness is steadily growing. Due to the increased prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders (at least 1% of the population) there are now many people who have a family member or friend affected. Many autistic people have written about the condition from the inside, and this has significantly increased our understanding of the condition although it must be remembered that everyone is unique and no two people with an ASD will present as the same.
Here are some links that you may find useful.
Descriptions of Autism and the Autistic Spectrum
- The Wikipedia article on Autism
- A short article on Autism and Asperger Syndrome from the BBC web site
- Another short article from the NHS
- Autism Independent UK aims to increase the awareness of Autism
- A great site and message board on Asperger Syndrome
- The Autism Directory was created because it was felt that parents should not feel alone and isolated
- The Autism Support Network
- A Teaching pack on autism from The National Autistic Society. It describes how to set up an autism friendly school
- Communication 4 All is a site with tons of resources
- The Autism Education Trust has a kids zone with lots of activities and resources
- Resources for supporting toddlers with Autism
- Social stories are an excellent tool for developing and improving social skills. This is a site that is devoted to the topic
- FACT are a local support group for autism
- Wordswell is a team of highly qualified speech and language experts. This is their web site
- Social Thinking is a web site associated with Michelle Garcia-Winner; it contains material and resources to teach social thinking and related social skills
- Northamptonshire County Council have a page that contains resource sheets for parents. You can find it here
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