Most of us are really confused about what having autism really means. It is particularly confusing because it is a spectrum disorder including many people who seem to be "normal" but perhaps odd, to individuals with profound disability who no one would mistake for typical. Research now suggests that there are really many many types of "autism". These autisms can be present with other complicating issues including genetic syndromes, intellectual disability, and even other brain disorders like depression and addiction. When a team is problem solving for/with an individual with ASD it helps to clarify what part of behavior is due to "autism" and what may be influenced by other conditions. This big picture perspective may help find new solutions that aren't obvious at first glance.
Autism is a social communication disorder. The most current description of autism, how professionals make a diagnosis is based on two concepts:
A. Deficit in social communication and interaction as demonstrated by:
1. Lack of social emotional reciprocity
2. Nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction
3. Developing and maintaining relationships
So what does this mean?
Up to 50% of our kids have no language while the other 50% have some language all the way to articulate language but there are gaps in understanding of subjects that are not concrete (the old Aspergers).
Our children may play in a peculiar way, but appear not to hear us nor invite us to play the way typical children do. Relationships don’t develop in the way they do for people with typical social skills. Many of our people can learn how to develop and maintain friendships but this usually needs to be taught to them. This is one reason parents are often so involved in their children’s lives. This is why an old public misconception is that people with ASD don’t know how to love. WRONG!
B. Restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities including:
3. narrow and intense areas of thought
4. altered sensory experiences
So what does this mean?
Stereotypes are the body gestures that one may think of with autism. Hand flapping, rocking, squealing, talking out loud to self. Many people refer to these actions as “stimming” meaning self-stimulation. It is thought that these may be a way for the autistic individual to calm themselves.
Rituals refers to the rigid way many individuals need to go through out their day. This can border on the line with obsessive compulsive behaviors. When trying to interrupt these behaviors or make them go faster, an unknowing person may trigger a tantrum or “meltdown”.
Narrow and intense areas of thought describes the preference of many of our people to only talk about subjects that are of interest to them.They may only have a few interests but learn an amazing amount about these subjects. Effective teachers learn what these preferences are and teach learning skills embedded in a project based on the preferred areas of interest. Being polite, or learning to tolerate discussions not related to the favorite subjects usually can be taught to individuals with ASD.
Altered sensory experiences is the least studied of the characteristics associated with autism. This is why many trained professionals don't address treatment in this area. This can cause parents to feel their teachers, psychologist, physicians and other professionals really don't "get" what life on the spectrum can be like. Many families find they cannot begin to teach their children effectively until they have identified and adapted to sensory differences. Individuals can be extremely sensitive to smells, textures, sounds, even the quality of light in a room. This can effect their ability to pay attention or focus on a subject being taught. Often experienced occupational therapists can make helpful suggestions. Many families just figure these sensitivities out on there own and learn to modify their child's environment to help them be more comfortable.
Some individuals with ASD can have decreased sensitivity to pain. If they don't receive these important sensory messages they may be at risk of fracturing bones, damaging their skin, or allowing internal condition such as an appendicitis to go undetected until it ruptures.
Research in this area shows that individuals with ASD are more likely to be affected by an unusual condition called synesthesia. This is a situation where a person may receive information from one sense but process it in another sense. Visual synesthesia seems to be the most common where seeing colors may be associated with hearing or tasting, but any of the senses can get crossed wired.