Autism is a life-long condition affecting around 1.1% of the population. It affects all races, classes and intellectual abilities. It is a spectrum condition meaning that it is extremely complex and affects people differently and to varying degrees. Autism is broadly defined as affecting three main areas (known as the “triad of impairments”): social communication, social interaction and social imagination. Everyone with autism is different. Whilst some people with autism lead independent lives, some need lifelong care. Others will need some degree of support, which will change over the course of their lifetime.
Autism is not a learning disability – about half of all people with autism have average or above-average intelligence – or a mental illness. However, one in three people with autism develop mental health difficulties due to the challenge of adapting to society with no support. People with autism often also have issues with sensory processing. They can either be over- or under-sensitive to any of their senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste, balance and self-awareness).
There is no cure for autism but early diagnosis and specialist support has been shown to greatly improve the quality of life of people with autism.
Autism is a hidden condition, meaning that it is often difficult to tell that someone has autism. Lack of autism awareness can lead to misunderstandings about the reasons that a person with autism may behave in a certain way. This can sometimes increase anxiety and depression in people with autism. Increasing autism awareness is key to ensuring that people with autism receive the right support and understanding throughout life.
Asperger Syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger Syndrome have similar difficulties to people with autism, but they have fewer problems with speaking (although they still have difficulties with social aspects of communication, finding it difficult to interpret emotions and facial expressions for example) and have average or above average intelligence.
Autism and Asperger syndrome can be grouped under the term Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Some characteristics that a person with ASD may display are:
• Stilted speech, with repetitive use of phrases.
• Conversations may be centred on special interests.
• Inability to pick up on and understand conversational cues (for example may not understand how to conduct a conversation).
• Difficulty understanding non-verbal cues such as facial expressions body language or eye contact appropriately.
• A lack of empathy with other people, resulting in them appearing rude, tactless or selfish.
• Difficulty understanding how people affect and influence each other.
• Anxiety in social situations, related to an awareness of being different and not fitting in.
• Change, especially unplanned change, can be very stressful.
• A dependence on predictable, repetitive activities to provide reassurance.
• High motivation and knowledge in special interests.
• Good attention to detail, but an inability to see things in the bigger picture, as this requires flexible and abstract thinking.
• Difficulty predicting the consequences of their actions and putting things into context.
• Difficulty with planning and time management due to anxiety when working under pressure and a perfectionist streak.
• Poor spatial awareness, motor skills and co-ordination.
• Over-sensitive or under-sensitive sensory skills.
It is important to note that everyone with autism is unique and that this list should not be used as a check list for diagnosing autism.
Some people with autism struggle to understand verbal and non-verbal language, body language, facial expressions and sarcasm. They may interpret common phrases or sayings literally for example “It’s raining cats and dogs”. In a conversation, when someone would normally know when it is their turn to speak, someone with autism may be unusually silent. On the other hand, once they start talking, they may carry on for much longer than normal. Some people with autism therefore have to learn the mechanics of conversation in a way that most people do not.
Some people with autism may have difficulty expressing themselves and understanding the feelings and emotions of others. They may find it hard to adapt to social situations or form relationships.
Some people with autism have a reduced ability to make sense of the world. This means that they may see the world as a threatening place. Some people with autism may demand and rely on rigid routines or repetitive behaviours. However it is not clear whether these routines are a way of making life manageable through a self-imposed structure, or whether a fixation on routine is an innate characteristic of the condition.