What Is Autism?
Autism is a spectrum disorder, and although it is defined by a certain set of behaviors, children and adults with autism can exhibit any combination of these behaviors in any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act completely different from one another and have varying capabilities.
You may hear different terms used to describe children within this spectrum, such as autistic-like, autistic tendencies, autism spectrum, high-functioning or low-functioning autism, more-abled or less-abled, but more important than the term used to describe autism is understanding that whatever the diagnosis, children with autism can learn and function normally and show improvement with appropriate treatment and education.
Every person with autism is an individual, and like all individuals, has a unique personality and combination of characteristics. Some individuals who are mildly affected may exhibit only slight delays in language and greater challenges with social interactions. They may have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Their communication is often described as talking at others instead of to them (e.g., monologue on a favorite subject that continues despite attempts by others to interject comments).
People with autism also process and respond to information in unique ways. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present. Persons with autism may also exhibit some of the following traits:
- Insistence on sameness; resistance to change
- Difficulty in expressing needs; using gestures or pointing instead of words
- Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
- Laughing (and/or crying) for no apparent reason; showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
- Preference to being alone; aloof manner
- Difficulty in mixing with others
- Not wanting to cuddle or be cuddled
- Little or no eye contact
- Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
- Sustained odd play
- Spinning objects
- Obsessive attachment to objects
- Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
- No real fears of danger
- Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
- Uneven gross/fine motor skills
- Non-responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf, although hearing tests are in normal range
For most of us, the integration of our senses helps us to understand what we are experiencing. For example, our sense of touch, smell and taste work together in the experience of eating a ripe peach: the feel of the peach’s skin, its sweet smell, and the juices running down your face. For children with autism, sensory integration problems are common, which may throw their senses off (they may be over- or under-active). The fuzz on the peach may actually be experienced as painful, and the smell may make the child gag. Some children with autism are particularly sensitive to sound, finding even the most ordinary daily noises painful. Many professionals feel that some of the typical behaviors of autism, like the ones listed above, are actually a result of sensory integration difficulties.
There are also many myths and misconceptions about autism. Contrary to popular belief, many children with autism do make eye contact; it just may be less often or different from a neuro-typical child. Many children with autism can develop good functional language and others can develop some type of communication skills, such as sign language or use of pictures. Children do not “outgrow” autism, but symptoms may lessen as the child develops and receives treatment.
One of the most devastating myths about children with autism is that they cannot show affection. While sensory stimulation is processed differently in some children, they can and do give affection. However, it may require patience on the parents’ part to accept and give love in the child’s terms.