What is Autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder affecting about 1 in 100 children. It is best thought of as a spectrum; with children at one end being very severely affected while at the other end, the continuum shades into ‘normality’. It is much more common in boys than girls, possibly as many as 5-8 times more. The difficulties in girls are often more subtle as they are thought to be more ‘socially robust’.
Many children with autism show some degree of learning difficulty but because of the nature of the problem it is extremely difficult to get an accurate picture of their intellectual ability or potential. Some have strengths in certain areas or ‘splinter skills’ such as being exceptionally good at IT, maths or art.
Various labels are used when attempting to define more accurately a child’s strengths and weaknesses including Asperger Syndrome, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), and Semantic-Pragmatic Language Disorder. These children all show some of the difficulties as described below but may or may not be given a label of ASD or, most recently, Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC). The boundaries are difficult to define.
Each child with autism is unique and the characteristics displayed by any one child tend to change as they develop.
Professor Elizabeth Newson`s definition, makes reference to a ‘triad of impairment’ that begins before the child is thirty months in age.
- Impairment of LANGUAGE and all modes of communication including gesture, facial expression and body language and the timing of these.
- Impairment of SOCIAL UNDERSTANDING, in particular a failure of social empathy.
- Evidence of RIGIDITY and INFLEXIBILITY of thought processes.
Another way of looking at autism is in terms of the “Theory of Mind”. This describes the inability to mind-read or “mind-blindness”. The autistic child is unable to work out what people are thinking and therefore cannot predict what they are going to do or what their motives are. There is difficulty recognizing relevant information and seeing the links between cause and effect. People with autism don’t appreciate “the whole picture”. There is a tendency to focus on details that ordinary children would ignore and to miss the things that others might see as important. The links between feelings or emotions and what causes them are missing. Not only can they not appreciate what causes the feelings of those around them, but also what causes their own.
Most people with autism also have problems with sensory processing and have variations in hypo and hyper sensitivity to sound, sight, touch, smell, taste, balance etc. Too much stimulation can lead to “overload”. Awareness of the child’s sensory sensitivity is essential as many behavioural difficulties are triggered by sensory factors e.g. changes in smell, flickering strip lighting, changes in temperature etc.
The other difficulties, such as rigidity of thought and liking for sameness, probably then develop over time as the child tries to cope with poor comprehension, confusion and anxiety.