Autism

What is Autism

Autism is much more common than most people think. There are over half a million people in the UK with autism - that's around 1 in 100 people.

People from all nationalities and cultural, religious and social backgrounds can have autism, although it appears to affect more men than women. It is a lifelong condition: children with autism grow up to become adults with autism.

Autism is sometimes referred to as an autism spectrum disorder, or an ASD. The word 'spectrum' is used because, while all people with autism share three main areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in very different ways. Some are able to live relatively 'everyday' lives; others will require a lifetime of specialist support.

The characteristics of autism vary from one person to another but are generally divided into three main groups. These are: difficulty with social communication, difficulty with social interaction and difficulty with social imagination.

Difficulty with social communication

People with autism have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal language. Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. They can find it difficult to use or understand:

  • facial expressions or tone of voice
  • jokes and sarcasm
  • common phrases and sayings; an example might be the phrase 'It's cool', which people often say when they think that something is good, but strictly speaking, means that it's a bit cold.

Some people with autism may not speak, or have fairly limited speech. Others will have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the give-and-take nature of conversations. They may talk at length about their own interests.

It helps if other people speak in a clear, consistent way and give people with autism time to process what has been said to them.

Difficulty with social interaction

People with autism often have difficulty recognising or understanding other people's emotions and feelings, and expressing their own, which can make it more difficult for them to fit in socially. They may:

  • not understand the unwritten social rules which most of us pick up without thinking: they may stand too close to another person for example, or start an inappropriate subject of conversation
  • appear to be insensitive because they have not recognised how someone else is feeling
  • prefer to spend time alone rather than seeking out the company of other people
  • not seek comfort from other people
  • appear to behave 'strangely' or inappropriately, as it is not always easy for them to express feelings, emotions or needs.

Difficulties with social interaction can mean that people with autism find it hard to form friendships: some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about this.

Difficulty with social imagination

Social imagination allows us to understand and predict other people's behaviour, make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine. Difficulties with social imagination mean that people with autism find it hard to:

  • understand and interpret other people's thoughts, feelings and actions
  • predict what will happen next, or what could happen next
  • understand the concept of danger, for example that running on to a busy road poses a threat to them
  • engage in imaginative play and activities: children with autism may enjoy some imaginative play but prefer to act out the same scenes each time
  • prepare for change and plan for the future
  • cope in new or unfamiliar situations.

Difficulties with social imagination should not be confused with a lack of imagination. Many people with autism are very creative and may be, for example, accomplished artists, musicians or writers.

The characteristics of autism vary from one person to another but as well as the three main areas of difficulty, people with autism may have:

Love of routines

The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to people with autism, who often prefer to have a fixed daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. This routine can extend to always wanting to travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast.

Rules can also be important: it may be difficult for a person with autism to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the 'right' way to do it. People with autism may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but can cope well if they are prepared for it in advance.

Sensory sensitivity

People with autism may experience some form of sensory sensitivity. This can occur in one or more of the five senses - sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. A person's senses are either intensified (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hypo-sensitive).

For example, a person with autism may find certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain.

People who are hypo-sensitive may not feel pain or extremes of temperature. Some may rock, spin or flap their hands to stimulate sensation, to help with balance and posture or to deal with stress.

Special interests

Many people with autism have intense special interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers. Some people with autism may eventually be able to work or study in related areas. For others, it will remain a hobby.

It can be hard to create awareness of autism as people with the condition do not 'look' disabled: parents of children with autism often say that other people simply think their child is naughty; while adults find that they are misunderstood.

All people with autism can benefit from a timely diagnosis and access to appropriate services and support.

For more information visit the National Autistic Society’s webpage:

http://www.autism.org.uk/en-gb/about-autism/autism-and-asperger-syndrome-an-introduction/what-is-autism.aspx

Back to top