You may have heard the words autism, Asperger’s syndrome, ASD, high functioning autism, autism spectrum condition/disorder and not been quite sure what it meant.
You may be reading this page because you, your child or someone you know has been diagnosed with autism in any of the guises mentioned above. Below you will find information on what that really means, some tips on how to cope with it and what to do next. If you want more information on related disorders, this page might help.
Autism is a disability/condition affecting three main areas:
- difficulty with social interaction
- difficulty with social communication
- difficulty with social imagination or inflexibility of thought
This is referred to as the triad of impairments. There can also be a wide range of additional problems such as sensory differences, fears and anxieties, attention and organisation and coordination.
Often people with autism are referred to as being on the spectrum. The word “spectrum” is used because while all people with autism share three main areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in very different ways.
Difficulty with Social Interaction
- Difficulty with social interaction can mean any of the following:
- Poor eye contact
- Unable to read body language
- Misreading facial expressions e.g. if someone is crying with laughter they may assume they are sad because there are tears
- Inappropriate laughing/giggling in the wrong situation
- Not understanding ‘personal space’. They might stand too close to someone when talking or they might need more personal space than you do
- Not appreciating the purpose of conversation and small talk
Difficulty with Communication
Difficulty with communication can mean any of the following:
- Some people may have limited, if any, expressive language, others may use words advanced for their age
- Difficulties processing instructions and complex sentences
- Often takes things literally e.g. difficulties understanding idioms like “not enough room to swing a cat”
- Echolalia – may repeat back what you are saying to them or repeat dialogue from a favourite film or TV show
Difficulty with Social Imagination or Inflexibility of Thought
Difficulty with social imagination or inflexibility of thought can mean any of the following:
- May have an obsessive attachment to objects
- Preoccupation with specific topic or interests that dominate their thoughts
- Unable to appreciate that someone has thoughts, feelings, responsibilities
- Dislikes changes in routine or uncertainty
- Has a particular way of doing things and will strive to ensure its always done that way
It is now recognised that many people on the autistic spectrum have sensory processing difficulties
What is Sensory Processing?
When we receive sensory information about smells, noises and touch we process and organise this information so that we feel comfortable and secure and are then able to respond appropriately. If a person has sensory processing difficulties they are not able to do this and it will affect them in a number of ways:
- Difficulty with movement due to poor balance skills
- Struggle with dressing independently, especially with fastenings
- Very sensitive to light
- Become upset by loud or unexpected noises
- Seem clumsy and drop things a lot
- May avoid touch or contact – it can be particularly painful to be touched gently, the pressure of a big ‘bear’ hug may feel good though
- May struggle to wear socks (because they feel the seam too acutely) or wear a particular t-shirt (because the tag is too itchy) or they don’t like particular towels because they are too rough
- Find different food textures difficult to cope with and have a limited diet0 (“picky” eater)
- Can’t focus in busy environments
- Unable to tolerate strong smells or perfume
These are just a few examples of potential everyday sensory issues
Understanding a person with Autism
People with autism share the common difficulty in making sense of the world in the way other people do. The degree to which individuals are affected varies widely but all will have deficiencies in the triad of impairments. These understandably lead to difficulties in everyday life and can lead to extremes of behaviour, which can be disruptive and isolating to all concerned. Autism can occur alongside other problems and learning difficulties are common.
How can we help people with Autism?
Specialist education and structured support can really make a difference to an individual with autism. Total understanding of the condition by all those involved in their care is paramount in helping them to develop their social and communication skills and ultimately achieve a better quality of life. For more information and advice please contact our information, advice and guidance service
What is autism? (External link to NAS)
What is ADHD? (External link to ADHD Matters)
Diagnosis and the future