What is Autism?“Autism is a life-long developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It affects how they make sense of the world around them”. (National Autistic Society, UK).
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects an individual’s communication, socialisation and behaviours. To be diagnosed on the autism spectrum, an individual has shown challenges in the areas of:
* Communication: verbal and non-verbal,
Social understanding and interactions,
Fixated interests, activities and repetitive behaviours, and
Sensory aspects of the environment.
It is not known what causes an individual to have an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Much research is being done to try to find out more. At this point it is believed to result from changes to brain development which may be caused by a combination of reasons, including environmental and genetic factors or a combination of both environment and genetic factors.
Autism is not caused by parenting styles or social circumstances. There is an increased chance of having another child with an ASD, if there is already a child in the family with an ASD, but no specific genes have yet been proven to cause ASD. There is no valid research or evidence to link autism with childhood vaccinations or other medical treatments.
5 Common Myths about Autism
1. People with autism don’t look at you;
Inconsistent eye contact may be common amongst some, but not all individuals with autism. Some people with autism may not intuitively look a person in the eye when talking to them, but may choose to focus instead on other parts of the face or body to gain meaning.
2. People with autism are not interested in social interaction;
Most people with autism are very keen to have friends and interact socially, but often have difficulties knowing how to make and keep friends. Social graces do not come naturally to people with autism, so they often need to be explicitly taught the “hidden” social rules. They may come across to others as shy or even unfriendly, but that is only because they may not be able to communicate their desire for relationships in the same way that you or I do.
3. People with autism do not express, feel or understand emotions;
Autism does not make an individual unable to feel the emotions you feel, it just makes the person communicate emotions (and perceive your expressions) in different ways. Autism often affects an individual's ability to understand unspoken interpersonal communication, so someone with autism may not detect an emotion (e.g. sadness) based solely on someone’s body language, facial expression or tone of voice. However, when emotions are communicated more directly, people with autism are much more likely to feel empathy and compassion for others.
4. People with autism are not affectionate;
People with autism can and do show affection, but this expression may vary from person to person because of differing responses to sensory stimuli. People with autism may be oversensitive to touch or hugs, but conversely may have a high threshold for pain. Whilst people with autism may appear to others to be “detached”, this does not indicate a lack of interest in being affectionate—it may be underpinned by a desire to engage in a pursuit that they may be more interested in. Likewise some people may need to understand the purpose of hugging to be taught this social convention.
5. People with autism are just like Dustin Hoffman in “Rainman” and have “savant skills”;
Most people with autism do not have any special savant skills. Some do have “splinter skills” which are areas of high performance that are not consistent with other skill levels. Autism is a spectrum disorder meaning its characteristics vary significantly from person to person. Knowing one person with autism means just that knowing one person with autism. His/her capabilities and limitations are no indication of capabilities and limitations of another person with autism.
How to Support People with Autism
* Explain at every stage what you are about to do, what will happen next and why.
* Give the person enough time to understand the information you are sharing and wait a few seconds for a response if it is not given immediately.
* Questions should be clear and direct using language that is easy to understand and pictures where necessary - do not rely on the person to pick up on the meaning of your questions or body language.
* People with autism might take what you say literally so avoid words with a double meaning and humour that could be misunderstood.
* Maintain a routine - familiarity is often important to some people with autism.
* Social difficulties may include a lack of eye contact and unusual body language, talking at inappropriate moments or about inappropriate topics.
* Repetitive behaviours might be a coping mechanism and therefore should be respected.
* The environment is important - some people with autism are particularly sensitive to light, movement, sounds, smell and touch. Try to keep the immediate environment as calm as possible to help alleviate anxiety.
* Always consider the person’s behaviour in terms of his or her autism, even if it becomes challenging.
* Ask the person and/or parent, carer or advocate what support they may need.