Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to and communicates with others.
It is a neurodevelopmental condition, meaning that the brains of those on the autism spectrum have developed and are ‘wired up’ differently from those of the non-autistic population.
Autism is a hidden condition which means that you can’t tell if someone is autistic from their outward appearance. The condition is known as a ‘spectrum condition’ as it affects people in different ways and to varying degrees. Autistic people can often have above average intelligence.
Many individuals with the condition reach adulthood without a diagnosis or their needs being met, since autism does not fit neatly into any category of Statutory Service Provision.
Characteristics of autism include:
- Social communication difficulties
- Social relationship difficulties
- Social imagination difficulties
- Preference for routines
- Sensory issues
- Repetitive behaviours
- Strong, focused interests
People with autism find it difficult to understand non-verbal forms of communication such as facial expression, body language and tone of voice. They also have difficulty with starting, maintaining and ending a conversation. They may struggle with knowing which topics are or aren’t appropriate, knowing when it is their turn to speak and avoiding accidental interruptions. People with autism process information literally, and therefore have difficulty making sense of metaphors or idioms. This can make it hard to form friendships and relationships and can also cause difficulties with day to day interactions in the workplace, college or university. Communication can be very confusing and anxiety-provoking and many people experience social isolation, bullying and depression.
As a result of their literal interpretation and difficulties with understanding non-verbal communication, people with autism often have significant difficulties with forming and sustaining relationships of all kinds, from forming friendships and romantic relationships to interacting appropriately at interviews and in the workplace. To someone on the autism spectrum, others appear confusing, unpredictable, illogical and even frightening.
People with autism do not learn social skills intuitively; they need to learn them by rote, which is extremely challenging as every social situation is different and, even if strategies have been learned, it can be very difficult to know which is correct to deploy in each situation. As a result, social situations can be quite stressful and tiring and can lead to feelings of embarrassment or shame when misunderstandings occur.
While people with autism are highly empathetic they can have difficulty understanding and reading the feelings, thoughts and actions of others and may respond or react unusually. They may find it difficult to understand that other people may react differently to the same situations or stimuli. Those with autism also find it hard to predict consequences of actions or to imagine alternative outcomes of the same situations.
Preference for routines
For autistic people, the world and people within it can seem very confusing and bewildering. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that they have a need for a sense of routine and structure in their daily lives as this helps them to feel safe. Changes in routine such as an appointment or late bus can be very anxiety-provoking and distressing.
People with autism may have intensified or under sensitive senses, or a combination of both. For people with keener senses fluorescent lighting, bright colours, strong smells, noises, tastes or particular textures can cause anxiety, pain and distress. Those who are under sensitive may seek out sensory stimuli, for example being drawn to shiny objects or certain sounds.
Sensory issues do not just affect the five main senses. Autistic people can experience difficulties interpreting and responding to their other senses such as sense of the passing of time, sense of hunger, temperature, tiredness etc.
People with autism may display repetitive behaviours or movements and may also carry out activities in a ritualistic manner. These repetitious behaviours are important as a self-calming mechanism and mode of expression so should not be stopped unless causing harm.
Strong, focused interests
Those on the autism spectrum often develop highly consuming interests, often on focused or specific topics. They can become exceedingly knowledgeable on these topics and may become upset or anxious if they are unexpectedly taken away from their interest. Some people have lifelong interests, while others may move from one to another over time.
Strengths associated with the autism spectrum
There are many strengths exhibited by those who are autistic. These may include:
- Expertise in special interests
- Encyclopaedic knowledge
- Good memory
- Excellent concentration with the ability to remain focussed for long periods
- Keener senses and observational abilities
- Logical thinking and approach
- Creativity and lateral thinking
- Honesty and clarity