Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Help Guide
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are lifelong developmental disorders. The nature of a spectrum disorder means that there are a number of different presentations and variations. ASD can also range from mild to severe.
Autistic individuals experience life in a different way to those who are not Autistic. Fundamentally, ASD affects how we relate to and communicate with other people and the way we understand the world we live in. Furthermore, every single Autistic person has their own characteristics and experience of the condition. Approximately 1 in 100 people have ASD in the UK. ASD is also more common in males than females.
The triad of impairments
There are three main areas of difficulty which Autistic people share. These are known as the 'triad of impairments': difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination.
Difficulty with social communication
Communication can often be a difficulty for those with ASD. Non-verbal methods such as using gestures and facial expressions can be difficult to understand. Meanwhile some forms of verbal communication can also be difficult to understand such as the use of sarcasm and differentiations in tone of voice. Some with ASD may also have difficulties with language.
Difficulty with social interaction
Certain social interactions can be difficult for someone with ASD to understand. For example, difficulties can be found in understanding social rules (e.g. giving appropriate personal space), recognising other people's emotions and expressing one’s own feelings.
Difficulty with social imagination
ASD can also lead to difficulties in understanding social situations that require imagination. This can involve finding it difficult to understand abstract ideas, predict what might happen next, prepare for change, understand the concept of danger, use imaginative play, and to cope in unfamiliar situations.
Every person experiences ASD and the difficulties that come with it in a different way. Some people experience many difficulties within the triad of impairments whilst others do not experience many.
Common characteristics of ASD
Having special interests
Many people with ASD have one or more special interests. These can be varied and can include many things such as dogs, dinosaurs, modes of transport, art, stamps, a particular TV programme, computers, dates in history, bus timetables or numbers. In some cases these special interests may seem obsessive. The individual may start collecting things that are associated with the interest, research a lot around the topic and speak about it frequently. Having such a focused interest may seem unusual, however, it should be noted that this is a usual part of ASD. Very often, individuals will gain enjoyment or comfort in taking such fixed interests.
With support, many people can channel their interests into the working world. For example someone with an interest in books and numbers may work in a library whereas someone with an interest in trains may become a train driver.
Many people with ASD experience differences and sensitivity of their senses. This includes under or over sensitivity of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. For example, a person with ASD may find bright colours appealing whereas they could also find them overbearing. They may find certain music too loud or they may like listening to very loud music. They could enjoy wearing lots of perfume or find strong smells unbearable. They could also be affected by the touch of certain materials; they may find particular clothes uncomfortable to wear or they may enjoy touching particular materials.
In addition to these five senses, two other senses can be affected by ASD. One of these is the sense of balance (the 'vestibular' system). Sensitivity in this can mean that someone may be more likely to have accidents or fall over.
The other is the sense of body awareness ('proprioception') which is the sense of knowing how to use our bodies and where our bodies are moving. Those without ASD are likely to know how much strength to use to gradually open a door, whereas someone with proprioception sensitivity may not do. This can mean that the individual may seem clumsy or heavy-handed for example.
Repetition and routine
Someone with ASD may repeat certain routines, conversations and behaviours. Often it can be seen that repetition is associated with a special interest, for example, frequently reading the same book or watching the same film.
In addition, repetition can be a way to deal with sensory sensitivity. For example, if someone has a sensory sensitivity to touch they may find it soothing to touch a certain fabric, or tap their feet repetitively. Another example may be if someone has a sight sensitivity, turning torches on and off or flapping the hand may provide adequate stimulation.
Repetition is influenced by stress and anxiety. Many individuals with ASD may attempt to cope with stress and anxiety with a repetitive behaviour.
Many people with ASD can also have learning difficulties. This can vary from mild to severe and can affect different areas of life.
This can affect the way in which someone learns how to do practical things such as how to clean or cook. This can also mean that someone can struggle academically and may require additional support at school or college.
There are a number of other diagnoses associated with ASD. These include Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
How does it feel to be autistic?
Every individual will experience life with ASD in a unique way yet will share some similarities in life. There have been many books written about individual experiences of ASD. Here is a paragraph from such a book:
‘Reality to an autistic person is a confusing, interacting mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights... Set routines, times, particular routes and rituals all help to get order into an unbearably chaotic life. Trying to keep everything the same reduces some of the terrible fear.’ Autism: A Personal Account by Jolliffe (1992).
Further written accounts of ASD:
- Doherty, K., McNally, P. and Sherrad, E. (2000) I have ASD - what's that?
- Stephen Shore (2013) Beyond the wall: Personal Experiences with ASD and Asperger Syndrome
- Temple Grandin (2011) The way I see it: A Personal Look at ASD and Asperger's
What is an Autistic savant?
An autistic savant is someone who exhibits extraordinary skills in a given areas. Approximately 1 in 10 people with ASD are also savant whilst the majority are not. There are a wide range of savant abilities and skills including excellent mathematics, memory, art and music.
Misunderstandings and stigma
Many people have a misconception that every person with ASD is a savant, when in fact this is not the case. Films such as 'Rain Man' have popularised the idea that most people with Autistic disorders are savants. Autism Awareness Day is on April 2nd and aims to raise understandings of the condition.
What causes ASD?
At present the cause for ASD remains unknown and is not fully understood. There are a number of theories which demonstrate that genetics and pre-natal factors may affect the onset of ASD.
What kind of help is available?
There are many approaches, therapies and interventions which can enable the learning and development of an autistic person. For example, behavioural interventions can be effective in reinforcing appropriate behaviours and independence. Examples can include getting dressed, cooking and learning social expectations. Additionally, behavioural interventions can be effective at discouraging inappropriate behaviours such as aggression.
Many people, including those with ASD can benefit from counselling. This can allow individuals to work through any issues and difficulties in life.
There are further approaches that focus on sensory difficulties and speech problems.
All individuals with ASD will present with individual issues and problems. Once an assessment is made, a professional will be able to offer support tailored to the individual. Some people with ASD will be able to function independently and some will require ongoing support with everyday life.
Where can I find further information and support services?
Some books which could be helpful for people with ASD include:
- Grossberg, B. (2012) Asperger’s rules: how to make sense of school and friends.
- Moss, H. (2010) Middle school: the stuff nobody tells you about. a teenage girl with high-functioning ASD shares her experiences.
- Musgrave, F. (2012) The Asperger children’s toolkit.
- Yoshida, Y. (2007). How to be yourself in a world that’s different: an Asperger syndrome guide for adolescents.
Further reading on ASD:
- Bleach, F. (2001). Everybody is different: a book for young people who have brothers or sisters with ASD. London: The National Autistic Society
- Al-Ghani, K.I. (2008). The red beast: controlling anger in children with Asperger’s syndrome.
- ASD: understanding behaviour (2013) by Caroline Hattersley
Some self-help websites include:
The National Autistic Society: www.autism.org.uk
NHS page on ASD: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/autistic-spectrum-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx
There are now many counselling and therapeutic services and organisations available. There are many trained professionals who will be able to support you such as Counsellors, Psychotherapists, Psychologists and Psychiatrists. Here are details of available services:
The NHS- seeing your GP and asking for a referral to see a specialist.
Charities- (such as MIND, Rethink, Young Minds and The National Autistic Society)
Counselling and psychotherapy clinics and services- Search through online directories or contact your council for organisations that offer can therapeutic help. (Harley Therapy is one such clinic)
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- The National Autistic Society, http://www.autism.org.uk/
- Therese Jolliffe, Richard Lansdown & Clive Robinson. ASD: A Personal Account (The National ASD Society, 1992). Reprinted article from Communication.
- Treffert, D. A. (2009). "The savant syndrome: An extraordinary condition. A synopsis: Past, present, future". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364 (1522): 1351–7