What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
How does it relate to Asperger Syndrome?
Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to a range of symptoms which covers individuals who are mildly affected to those with a profound degree of disability. It is a life-long disorder typically characterised by the so called triad of impairments.
These three characteristics, triad of impairments, vary in severity between individuals and they may also manifest in different ways according to age. There is always the potential for improvements in terms of learning to cope a little better, especially for those with higher levels of ability.Below is a list of many of the common characteristics however it is by no means an exhaustive list.
- Imagining Autistic Spectrum Disorders
- Who suffers from Autistic Spectrum Disorder?
- Main Characteristics - Triad of Impairments
- Sensory Difficulties
- Differences in brain structures
- Allergies and sensitivities
- Savant (exceptional) Skills
- Mental health
Imagining Autism Spectrum Disorders
A person on the autism spectrum lives in an environment which is in some senses governed by a different set of rules. This is because they have a different way of perceiving and thinking about their environment. The world is often an inconstant chaotic place from their perspective and the intensity of this chaos varies from person to person. I believe that many people who are not considered to be on the autism spectrum actually experience small aspects of these problems to a much lesser degree. In my autobiography I have explained how I perceive the world around me and how my unusual perceptions impacted upon my life from childhood to adulthood. No matter who you are 'it matters how you perceive' because this is your starting point for interacting with the world and people around you.
- It is a life-long condition found in all races and across all social classes.
- Its origin would appear to be genetic although so far the 'faulty genes' have not been properly identified.
- It is generally accepted that in the UK about 1 person in every 100 people is on the autism spectrum. A few decades ago the incidence was believed to be about 1 person in every 1000 people; I suspect this figure only accounted for those most severely affected.
- It appears to occur about 4 times more often in males than females (i.e. 4 males to 1 female). It is now thought that this bias exists due to females not being diagnosed. Autism Spectrum Disorder often seems to manifest in slightly different ways between the genders; females are generally better at masking their symptoms particularly in terms of poor social interaction.
Autism Spectrum Disorder has 3 central symptoms (triad of impairments) all of which are always present to some degree. The 3 central symptoms are impairments in imagination, social communication and social interaction. In addition there is a strong tendency towards repetitive behaviour. All these impairments result, to some degree, in unusual behaviours.
- Impairment in social relationships/skills/interaction leads to:
- a lack of understanding of someone else's state of mind (e.g. feelings and emotions).
- difficulties with interpreting other people's facial expressions and body language.
- unusual behaviours such as being aloof, stilted, rude, aggressive, forthright, shy, thoughtless, immature, etc. which often result in people on the autism spectrum having difficulty forming meaningful long-term friendships and relationships.
- Impaired Imagination: is an inability to imagine things, which have not already been experienced, for example:
- New or different situations can be unimaginable and therefore perhaps frightening. For instance, if someone I normally spend time with goes on holiday, to me it feels as if they have disappeared into an empty void; it is as if the person has vanished. Is this perhaps one reason why people on the autism spectrum tend to prefer routines?
- Changes in routine are frightening/disorientating without the ability to imagine an alternative sequence of events. Could this also help explain the need/preference for routines?
- There may be considerable difficulty imagining and therefore comprehending another person's mental state. A person on the autism spectrum may not appreciate that other people have their own thoughts, perspectives, plans, etc.
- There are often difficulties making generalisations. So someone on the autism spectrum may put excessive emphasis on fine details and neglect the general overview.
- Communication and Language. People on the autism spectrum often have trouble expressing and projecting themselves, and also have difficulties understanding different forms of communication. These problems may manifest as:
- A literal understanding of language. Pictorial language is typically nonsensical if taken literally. For example, "It's raining cats and dogs" or "We're going down the road to the shops". Obviously cats and dogs do not fall out of the sky and in general the shops will not be underground!
- "Don't do that." A person on the autism spectrum may not know what the word 'that' is referring to.
- People on the autism spectrum have the same emotions as everybody else but they may not express them in a way that is easily understood, partly because they may fail to realise that language is one way to express them.
- A person on the autism spectrum may fail to take any notice of a person they are talking to. As a result the person on the autism spectrum may embark on a one-way monologue as opposed to a two-way interactive conversation.
Most, if not all people with Autism Spectrum Disorder have some impairment in at least one of their senses. Any sense can be affected; vision, auditory, olfactory (smell), taste, tactile, vestibular (affects balance) and proprioception (relating to the position and movement of the body). Some senses maybe hypersensitive (over sensitive) while others maybe hyposensitive (under sensitive). This can result in normal everyday situations becoming very stressful. For example crowded places may be totally overwhelming. Furthermore the senses of someone on the autism spectrum may relay 'faulty' information about the world around them. My animation Sight2017 simulates some of the disruption to my vision. Moreover many of us have difficulty filtering out extraneous information from our senses so can quickly become overloaded by inputs (e.g. noise) from our surroundings. In my book I describe how debilitating these disruptions to my senses can be; it is often difficult for me to make sense of what is happening around me.
Differences in brain structures
Someone on the autism spectrum has a subtly different neuron network structure in their brain compared to a 'normal' person. There may also be subtle differences in the brain's biochemistry. It would appear that some areas of the brain of a person on the autism spectrum are very highly developed when compared with a 'normal' person's brain, while other areas are underdeveloped (e.g. physically smaller). The exact ways in which these differences affect the behaviour of an individual is mostly an open research question as this area of science is still very much in its infancy.
Allergies and Sensitivities
There are many anecdotal references to dramatic changes in a child's behaviour and health after removing certain foods from their diets. I would also suggest that certain household products such as paints, glues, nail vanish, hair spray, washing powder can also set off strange reactions in a susceptible person; I definitely fall into this category. Coming into contact with various chemicals or foods can make me suddenly feel very unwell. As a result I may feel poorly for a few hours or even a few days.
There is a proportion, some figures suggest 10%, of people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder that have exceptional skills in some area such as mathematics, music, art, puzzles, spatial construction and memory. For example, I can manipulate certain complex mathematical equations effortlessly in my head, easily solve certain types of complex problems and imagine physical objects from all angles in my mind's eye.
It should be appreciated that the behaviour of a person on the autistic spectrum is relative to their perceived environment just as the behaviour of a 'normal' person is relative to their perceived environment. This can be illustrated as follows: A young child on the autism spectrum is at home with their parents when several family members (adults and children) arrive at the house - everyone piles into the lounge. After a short time the child on the autism spectrum screams to all the people in the lounge "Shut-up, shut-up. Go away, GO AWAY." Everyone is shocked and dismayed at the child's unreasonable and very rude behaviour. Although this behaviour is by most peoples' standards unacceptable it is actually completely understandable. I doubt any 'normal' person could withstand the torturous sensory overload that this child on the autism spectrum was experiencing in the crowded noisy lounge. The key here comes down to management of the situation - with time and experience the child and family will need to learn coping mechanisms. For example, in this situation the child could have been allowed to go to their bedroom once everything started getting too much for them in the lounge.
There is little doubt that people on the autism spectrum are very vulnerable to mental ill-health. High functioning individuals commonly experience severe depression and anxiety. These mental health conditions need to be managed along with all the other symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The best way to manage them will depend on the individual.
First, I should say there is not a cure, or if there is I have never heard of it! Secondly, there are a lot of treatments/therapies which may help many sufferers but the difficulty is finding the one(s) which is best for you and/or your child. It is not my place to make any suggestions or point towards any one specific treatment/therapy. However, if I were a parent of a child on the autism spectrum I would be inclined to try several different treatments each of which concentrated on a different aspect of my child's condition/development. For instance, I might use a therapy to improve social understanding, try changing/regulating my child's diet and perhaps some sensory integration techniques.
At any age learning to manage and cope with the condition will be crucial. The management/coping strategies will to some extent need to be tailored to each individual as no two people on the autism spectrum are identical.