Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how someone makes sense of the world around them. It is very difficult to define ASD simply, because the autism spectrum is so vast and varied.
People of all intelligences can be autistic. The important fact is that it is a low social intelligence that affects all autistic people wherever they are on the spectrum. No two people are the same and this is very true with people on the autistic spectrum. Some will be very capable in some areas, but then be unable to cope in other areas and this will be different for each individual.
ASD is lifelong, it is not something developed later on in life and it will not disappear, although some people manage their difficulties so well that you would hardly know that were autistic. An autistic person will struggle more at different times in their life. The exact cause of ASD is unknown, although research suggests it has a genetic link. There is no cure for ASD, but different treatments and therapies can help manage the difficulties. Autistic people can be very successful, for example people who are rumoured to be autistic include Bill Gates, Michael Palin, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Sir Issac Newton, Mozart, Charles Darwin, Jane Austen and Albert Einstein.
Some people say that everyone must be on the spectrum somewhere because everyone has little quirks like not coping with change, finding large groups overwhelming, being too blunt etc. but to actually be diagnosed with ASD you must have a range of problems spanning three different areas. Having a few of the issues doesn’t mean you are autistic. You have to possess many of the traits and they have to affect your life in a way that you can’t always function properly. Even people who would be considered high functioning, find it very difficult to cope with particular areas of daily life.
An impairment in social interaction
It is important to understand that autistic people do not generally want to be friendless, but their attempts at making friends are often unsuccessful and so usually they are ‘outsiders’ in their peer groups. The problem comes from the inability to understand and use the rules of social interaction and act according to those rules. Most rules to do with social interaction are unwritten, changing all the time and are very complex. Autistic people do not intuitively know these rules and they simply do not know what to do and when to do it. Impairment in social interaction may include
- inability to interact with peers
- lack of desire to interact with peers
- poor appreciation of social cues
- poor eye contact
- socially and emotionally inappropriate responses
- avoiding looking at other people’s faces
- having difficulty understanding gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice
- having difficulty knowing when to start or end a conversation and choosing topics to talk about
- misreading social situations
- inability to demonstrate sympathy and/or empathy
An impairment in communication
Autistic people find it difficult to communicate or express their own emotional state. It is hard for them to use the right words in the right situation and they often take everything said to them very literally. Impairment in communication may include
- struggling to make and maintain friendships
- not understanding the unwritten ‘social rules’ that most people pick up without thinking - for example, they may stand too close to another person or start an inappropriate topic of conversation
- finding other people unpredictable and confusing
- becoming withdrawn and seeming uninterested in other people
- behaving in what may seem an inappropriate manner
An impairment in social imagination
A lack of social imagination will affect the ability autistic people have to appreciate other people’s point of view and therefore their behaviour will lack social and emotional reciprocity. It is also combined with inflexible thinking and repetitive behaviour. Impairment in social imagination may include
- finding it hard to imagine alternative outcomes to situations and finding it hard to predict what will happen next
- difficulty in understanding other people’s thoughts, feelings or actions - the subtle messages that are put across by facial expression and body language are often missed
- having a limited range of imaginative activities, which can be pursued rigidly and repetitively
As well as these three areas, people on the autistic spectrum usually have problems in the following areas also:
- the need for routine and strict adherence of this
- special interests and obsessions
- sensory difficulties
When autistic people become overwhelmed, they tend to have what is known as a meltdown. Meltdowns happen when someone is pushed past their limit and they are no longer in control of their emotional state. They can present as violent outbursts, depressive episodes, crying or becoming selectively mute. Meltdowns are not just the same as someone crying who is not autistic. They are incredibly draining and zap all of the person's energy and they have limited or no control over them happening.