Top 10 Things You Should Know About Autism Spectrum Disorder
According to Autism Speaks, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.” Although there are several characteristics of ASD that can be common to a broad range of those diagnosed with the disorder, each individual with ASD is unique, and must be treated as unique, with their specific needs and abilities kept in mind by those who interact with them. There are several things that family, friends, teachers, and others interacting with someone who falls anywhere on the autism spectrum should know.
Every Person With Autism Is Unique
ASD has “spectrum” in the title for a reason. Every person with ASD experiences autism differently. Some individuals will be very talkative and crave social interaction or things like physical touch, while others may be nearly or completely nonverbal and extremely agitated by social interaction. As Executive Editor of SheKnows, Nancy Prince — who also has a 10 year old son who was diagnosed with autism at 21 months — puts it, “Some kids with autism are very affectionate while others shy away from hugs. Some talk a lot, some mainly repeat the same things, and others don’t talk at all — and everything in between…The variations are huge.” Although early intervention is integral in helping individuals with autism cope with certain triggers and various other effects of ASD, many go on to live fulfilling, successful lives. A child with ASD may face more scrutiny and, thus, have a more difficult time when feeling misunderstood. In her book, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, author and mother of sons with autism and ADHD, Ellen Notbohm, offers a perspective of a child diagnosed with autism.
“My autism is part of who I am, not all of who I am. Are you just one thing, or are you a person with thoughts, feelings, preferences, ideas, talents, and dreams? Are you fat (overweight), myopic (wear glasses) or klutzy (uncoordinated)? Those may be things that I see first when I meet you, but you’re more than just that, aren’t you?” reads one passage. “As an adult, you have control over how you define yourself. If you want to single out one characteristic, you can make that known. As a child, I am still unfolding. Neither you nor I yet know what I may be capable of. If you think of me as just one thing, you run the danger of setting up an expectation that may be too low. And if I get a sense that you don’t think I ‘can do it,’ my natural response will be, why try?”
Many Individuals With Autism Have A Special Interest
One characteristic that tends to be consistent among individuals with ASD is that of having a special interest that they can often become fixated on. There is no limit to what said interest could be; some people with autism have a phenomenal gift of memorization and may approach a litany of people to ask their birthdays, because they will always remember no matter how many dates they accumulate. For teachers, it is important to take note of these interests as a motivational tool in lessons for students with autism, as individuals with autism often learn differently than those who have not experienced ASD. According to Autism Society, “Teachers should use the child’s passion as a motivational tool for learning new subjects. Julie Ann Reed, whose son has Asperger’s, said, ‘If your son or daughter has an obsession, use it to help him or her to learn new material. My son Paul is obsessed with computers; so I use computers as a reward system.’”
Visuals can also be extremely beneficial when teaching those with autism. Notbohm also notes this in her book, with a passage that reads, “Visual supports help me move through my day. They relieve me of the stress of having to remember what comes next, make for smooth transition between activities, and help me manage my time and meet your expectations.”
People With Autism Experience Sensory Sensitivity
Although every individual with autism is unique, a common characteristic is sensory sensitivity. Many individuals with autism can become extremely agitated by smell, sight, taste, sound, and/or touch. For example, when people without autism are having a conversation, there may be various other conversations occurring around them, as well as birds chirping, and cars whizzing by. These people are able to continue a conversation at ease, as they are able to tune out the other noises. Imagine hearing every sound around you all at once, or seeing every color and detail of every object, building, and picture around you. Sounds pretty overwhelming, doesn’t it? For many people with autism, these overwhelming occurrences become par for the course. Many people may mistake people with autism for being extremely hostile toward them, when really they are grappling with making sense of their hypersensitivity.
According to HelpGuide, “Many children with autism spectrum disorders either under-react or overreact to sensory stimuli. At times they may ignore people speaking to them, even to the point of appearing deaf. However, at other times they may be disturbed by even the softest sounds. Sudden noises such as a ringing telephone can be upsetting, and they may respond by covering their ears and making repetitive noises to drown out the offending sound.” Intervention programs and therapies can help to address these sensitivities and help people with autism learn ways to cope. SheKnows reminds people to forego jumping to conclusions or making judgments when witnessing a child with autism who may appear to be having a tantrum. When you see a child in McDonald’s that throws an inconsolable fit, don’t assume that the child is bad — that the parents have done everything wrong. Because you don’t know,” said mother of two, Amber Theinert.
Autism Is Not The Same As Intellectual Disability
Intellectual disability — which was formally referred to as Mental Retardation or MR — can be caused by various factors that lead to the developmental disorder, which is “characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills,” according to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). Although the symptoms of both Intellectual Disability and ASD can appear to be similar, they are two separate disorders. However, as UNLV Center For Autism Spectrum Disorder puts it, “Autism occurs by itself or in conjunction with other disorders, such as intellectual disability” with 80% of people with autism also experiencing some form of intellectual disability. Still, they are not the same disorder and thus need to be treated as separate or coexisting entities.
Early Intervention Is Key To Treatment of Autism
ASD does not define an individual, nor does it determine the level of success and quality of life that individual will achieve. However, early intervention is integral to helping individuals with autism cope with their specific set of symptoms and to be able to function in society in order to lead happy, fulfilling lives. This is not to say that people who do not receive early intervention are in any way “doomed”, but research has shown that the earlier ASD is addressed and treated, the easier children will be able to cope and certain symptoms may even be reversible. A 2014 CBS News report noted a study from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders which tested a 12-week intervention plan on infants aged 7 to 15 months (most children with ASD are not diagnosed until approximately four years of age) who were exhibiting signs of autism. Because of the early treatment, many of the children’s symptoms were reversed and after following up with the children three years after the study had been conducted, it was found that a majority of the children “had fewer language delays and general developmental delays.”
“Most of the children in the study, six out of seven, caught up in all of their learning skills and their language by the time they were 2 to 3,” lead author Sally J. Rogers, professor of psychiatry and developmental sciences at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement. “Most children with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] are barely even getting diagnosed by then.”
The report went on to note that there are various signs of autism that occur at the start of a child’s life, and are imperative for parents to take note of in order to seek treatment as quickly as possible. Autism Speaks also offers a collection of signs for parents to look for, which include:
- A lack of expression such as smiling or giggling after six months of age
- Furthermore, a lack of response to expressions from others after nine months. Babies normally will be able to “smile back” at you before this time period.
- A lack of speech or “babbling” by the baby’s first birthday.
- An inability to formulate any words by 16 months.
- A lack of gesturing, “such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving by 12 months.”
- “No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months.”
- During any age, if there is a halt in social skills or speech, parents should take heed and contact their physician or treatment therapist to address the possibility of ASD.
Other findings have indicated the head circumference can signal ASD. According to Parents, “Researchers [who conducted a study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association] discovered that most infants who were later diagnosed with autism had small head circumferences at birth but had heads — and brains — much larger than normal by 6 to 14 months.” Of course, an above average head circumference and brain size does not determine a diagnosis of autism, but it is something that parents should be advised to pay attention to and “watch closely” during the child’s development.
Research Has Indicated That ASD Is Caused By A Combination Of Genetic and Environmental Factors
It has not been long that autism awareness has made its way into the fabric of mainstream discussion or that so much research has come underway to better understand, diagnose, and treat the disorder. The wide held — albeit, erroneous — belief used to be that ASD was the fault of parents who didn’t know how to “control” their child, a belief that was as detrimental to the child as well as the parents who grappled with how to best rear their child in a way that they could function and lead happy, successful lives. Many may remember when actress and comedian Jenny McCarthy voiced her concern over the possibility of childhood vaccinations being a cause of autism, but overwhelming conclusions from scientific research has shown this to not be the case. What research has shown to be a likely cause of ASD is a combination of genetics and environmental factors.
According to Parents, “researchers now believe that genes — not psychological factors — are to blame. If a couple has one autistic child, there is a 5 to 10 percent chance that siblings will have some sort of autistic disorder. With identical twins, the likelihood is 60 percent.” Research has shown that there are various genes that could be at play when it comes to the development of autism and that there are also environmental factors that could take on a role in the development of the disorder.
Patience Is Key In Interacting With People With ASD
In a video from Chikitsa Share, a young man diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome (a high-functioning form of autism on the spectrum) spoke on the need for patience from people who do not have autism and interact with a person on the spectrum. Individuals with ASD — particularly Asperger’s — are very cued into things like details, which means that it can take them longer than the average person to complete a task. This is not because the person with ASD is lazy or incompetent, it is just that they often want to master every detail or, perhaps, need things like directions to be explained in a different way. Becoming agitated or upset with someone with autism will not remedy the situation and can be extremely distressing for the individual with ASD. Moreover, individuals with autism often do not understand or process others’ emotions is the same way that an individual without autism would. For example, when someone is being sarcastic or making a quip, an individual with ASD may take what the person says very literally and, thus, things can become misinterpreted. It is integral for people to be patient and rephrase things, or explain things in a manner that may be different from what they are used to. The man in the video also notes that individuals with autism often do not make eye contact during conversation, which — in American society — can be perceived as rude or as if the person is not listening. People with ASD are very much listening, but often times eye contact and other societal “norms” can provoke anxiety, which is why it is difficult for them to adhere to said rules. Being patient and understanding this is an important practice when interacting with a person with ASD.
Freelance writer Heather Tooley notes several ways to practice patient when you have a child with autism. Even with intervention and treatment in place, raising a child with autism can become trying for parents as they learn their child’s triggers and grapple to understand the best way to understand. Tooley notes that staying calm during times that a child becomes distressed is key, as well as having social and community outlets to be able to express and share struggles, as well as to learn different tools in building the relationship between parent and child.
People With ASD Can Go On To Achieve Great Things
Being an individual who lies somewhere on the autism spectrum does not create a decidedly low glass ceiling, where that person cannot go on to achieve good or great things. Although people with autism may experience several challenges due to the different ways they process information and with other symptoms that often can make things like social interaction difficult, it is important to remember that people with ASD are unique, remarkable individuals just like everyone else. We have discussed how many people with ASD have special, specific interests. Often times the zeal individuals experience over these interests can turn them into prodigies. That was most certainly the case with singer Susan Boyle. The singer received international accolades after her mind-blowing audition on Britain’s Got Talent, and she has since sold over 19 million albums worldwide. The singer was also diagnosed with Asperger’s in December 2013. In an interview with Daily Mail, Boyle spoke candidly about her diagnosis and what she and her managerial team refer to as a “hooded look”, which comes before Boyle’s behavior changes from outgoing and jovial to disconcerted and withdrawn. “Direct questions from her own people are met with a glare, to the point that food is ordered for her,” described Daily Mail’s Jenny Johnston. “Someone asks if she’s cold. She rolls her eyes and mutters under her breath.”
When Boyle later sat down with Johnston, she apologetically explained her behavior as a characteristic of her disorder and how having a magnifying glass on her since coming to fame had exacerbated the symptoms at time, but that being provided the outlet of music and being onstage is one thing that continues to make her feel “safe.”
“When I’m up on stage, even if I’ve had a bad day, I can become a different person. I feel safe,” she said. She also went on to note how she has chosen to utilize her fame to raise awareness on Asperger’s and to educate people who misunderstand the disorder. “I want people to see how it is, to see that you shouldn’t judge…People with Asperger’s do put a barrier up because they don’t know how to trust people. I try not to. I want to let people in.”
It Is Important To Identify The Triggers That Lead To Meltdowns In People With ASD
As previously mentioned, people on the autism spectrum often experience extreme sensory sensitivities. Something that may be mildly irritating for someone who does not have ASD can feel completely debilitating to someone who has a form of autism. The range of things that could specifically effect a person with ASD is vast and it is integral for those involved with a person who has ASD to identify this trigger in order to help alleviate distress and avoid instances that can lead to upset. Notbohm offers the perspective of those who experience meltdowns due to ASD by stating, “ Keep a log noting times, settings, people, and activities. A pattern may emerge…Remember that everything I do is a form of communication. It tells you, when my words cannot, how I’m reacting to what is happening around me.” Sometimes the cause can be physical, such as with sleep problems or food allergies. As some with ASD cannot communicate things as well verbally, it is important to search for a cause and listen to the ways they do know how to communicate.
People With Autism Desire Acceptance And Unconditional Love
Acceptance and love are two things we all desire. For people with ASD the need to be accepted and feel loved is especially important, as they continue to face monumental challenges in being understood by mainstream society, even as research on autism and awareness becomes more prominent. In a section from Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, Notbohm notes that children with autism need love, support, and guidance in order to thrive. Indeed, being encouraged and consoled during times of stress and confusion can have a monumental effect on the development, progress, and — most importantly — happiness of a person with ASD.