What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition, meaning that it originates in childhood, continues through to adulthood, and affects the way our brain works. People with diagnosed Autism typically have communication difficulties and can show some repetitive behaviours. A learning disability may intensify these symptoms.

However, the extent of those difficulties can vary widely, from mild to severe (hence autism spectrum), affecting people’s day-to-day lives to a different degree. Asperger’s Syndrome is a particular form of Autism, where people do not have a diagnosed learning disability and average to above-average intelligence. Asperger’s Syndrome is also referred to as high functioning autism.

Is Autism a mental illness?

No. ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder and, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V), is characterised by ‘persistent differences in communication, interpersonal relationships, and social interaction across different environments’.

However, evidence suggests that people with Autism are more likely to experience mental health problems such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression.

What causes Autism?

It is still not known what causes of ASD are. However, studies suggest that the interplay of genes and environmental factors is likely to play a role in developing Autism.

The research into the causes is still ongoing. Some risk factors include:

  • Having a sibling with ASD
  • Having older parents
  • Having certain genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and Rett syndrome, are more likely than others to have ASD
  • Meagre birth weight

Presentation of Autism

Although there is a range of typical symptoms for someone with Autism, these can present in diverse ways and have a different impact on day-to-day life.

A person with Autism would typically struggle with social interactions, both verbal and non-verbal, and have difficulty recognising and showing emotions. A person with Autism would typically experience challenges in some of these areas (to a various degree):

  • Social communication and interaction – this can range from being unable to speak or read other’s emotions to having effective communication skills but struggling to understand more abstract concepts, tone of voice or sarcasm. Because of these difficulties, people with Autism may come across as insensitive, struggle to find and keep friendships, and not seek comfort from other people.
  • Repetitive and restrictive behaviour – people with Autism like predictability and routines, which provides comfort because it reduces unpredictability. They may prefer having the same things for breakfast or travelling the same route to and from school/work. Autistic people also often engage in repetitive behaviours such as rocking in a chair, closing and shutting doors, or hand flapping
  • Over or under sensitivity to light, taste, sounds or touch – this can mean experiencing music or brightness of the room particularly intensely, to the point of becoming anxious or even experiencing physical pain
  • Highly focused interests or hobbies – these can often be more intense than for an average person and are fundamental to the well-being of a person with Autism
  • Extreme anxiety – this is particularly the case in social situations or when changes to the usual routine occur.
  • Meltdowns and shutdowns – when the world around becomes too much, a person with Autism can go into meltdown and may start shouting, screaming, kicking or hitting, or becoming withdrawn and shut down (isolate).

Treatment

Although there is no cure for Autism at the moment, there is a wide range of support available to help people with Autism live as independently as possible. Depending on their difficulty level, they may need support with day-to-day tasks, like washing, dressing, and shopping. This support could be provided by their parents, carers, support workers or any other individuals.

Medication for Autism

Although there is no medication to cure Autism, medication can be used to treat other underlying symptoms, such as anxiety or depression.

Psychological Treatments for Autism (ASD)

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – looks at how feelings, thoughts and behaviour influence each other and how these patterns can be changed; effective treatment for depression and anxiety.
  • Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) – applies our understanding of how behaviour works to real situations. The goal is to increase behaviours that are helpful and decrease behaviours that are harmful or impact learning. It uses positive reinforcement, such as a reward, and practical consequences to shape desired behaviours.
  • Pictorial Exchange Communication System (PECS) – focuses on helping in developing communication in children.
  • Treatment of Autistic and Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) – a method used for educating and teaching autonomy. It is based on five principles: clearly defined physical boundaries, consistency, independence, routine, visual aids.
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