What is autism?

What is autism?

(Picture: Danny Richardson)

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects the way a person communicates with other people and relates to the world around them. Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently. They often find the world around them overwhelming.

This means that taking part in everyday family, school, work and social life can be more challenging.

Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support. People with autism may also experience over or under sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours.

As the term autism spectrum implies, the degree to which people are affected by their condition varies significantly. However, everyone on the autistic spectrum shares a difficulty in making sense of the world.

If you are autistic, you are autistic for life. There is no ‘cure’. However, with the right support, people can be helped to live more fulfilling life.

Autism affects approximately one in every 100 people and, as diagnostic skills improve, more people are being identified.

It is estimated that there are about 1,000 people on the autism spectrum in Jersey.

What are the characteristics of autism?

People with autism have difficulties in three main areas to the extent that they limit and impair everyday functioning. These are referred to as the triad of impairments:

Social Communication – people with autism have difficulty understanding and using basic language to communicate. Language may be absent, delayed or pedantic. People with autism have difficulty interpreting things like facial expressions, tone of voice and sarcasm. They may struggle with abstract concepts. It can help to give them time to process what has been said.

Social Interaction – people who have autism may have some difficulties interacting with others. In particular they may lack intuitive social behaviour and misunderstand social context. They may find it difficult to make friends. They find it difficult to ‘read’ other people and express their own emotions. They may appear to be insensitive or act in a way thought to be socially inappropriate.

Social Imagination – they may have difficulty understanding someone else’s perspective and may have problems generating new ideas and activities. They can have a limited repertoire of interests. Children can fail to develop pretend play.

In addition, people who are on the autism spectrum are likely to demonstrate repetitive behaviour and be resistant to change. Because the world can be an unpredictable and confusing place, they will prefer to have a familiar routine.

Many people with autism will also be over- or under-sensitive to sounds, touch, taste, smells, light, colours, temperatures and pain. For example, they might find background sounds unbearably loud or distracting.

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism used to describe people who are usually at the higher functioning end of the spectrum. The majority of people with Asperger’s Syndrome become independent as adults, many marry and some display exceptional gifts, though retaining the unusual quality of their social interactions.

Due to these subtleties, diagnosis in children can be challenging. However, early intervention can assist with a child’s development through gaining understanding and acceptance from their family, peers and teachers.

As with others on the spectrum, people with Asperger’s Syndrome can sometimes find the world overwhelming, which can make them very anxious. They often wonder why they feel ‘different’.

What causes autism?

I wish I knew how his brain was wired. He is happy, he has no malice, but he’s in his own little world, God love him

The exact cause of autism is not known. Research shows that genetic factors are important. It is also evident that autism may be associated with a variety of conditions affecting brain development, which occur before, during or soon after birth.

Autism appears to affect more men than women.

The earlier that a diagnosis of autism is made, the better the chances are that the individual will receive appropriate help and support. Timely intervention has been shown to improve the quality of life for people on the autism spectrum and their families, and can significantly reduce the amount of support needed later in life.

For more on the latest research, go to the National Autistic Society website www.autism.org.uk.