Understanding Autism

Understanding Autism

Author :Melanie Mitchell , for ‘Spot A Childcare’

When I think about autism and what it means to have an autistic child, I am often reminded of the ‘Welcome to Holland’ poem by ‘Emily Perl Kingsley’. When my child was first diagnosed with autism a friend handed me a copy of that poem hoping that I find some comfort in it, or at least some recognition to the fact that I wasn’t alone.

Kingsley had a child that was born with Down syndrome, whereas I had a child born with autism. To take the analogy of the poem a little further, whilst it is true like most expectant parent I was directed to Italy, but unlike Kingsley when the plane landed someone didn’t say ‘welcome to Holland’, they said ‘welcome to Italy’ and it was only later that I discovered that I was in Holland. This is because autism isn’t obvious from birth as the diagnosis comes much later, typically around early childhood and generally after 24 months.

What is Autism?

Autism is often referred to ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder and it is a lifelong development condition that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Autism in not a disease or an illness that can be cured, it just means that people with autism see the world differently. It also doesn’t mean that children or adults with autism will have a ‘special gift’, some might but some won’t.

Autism is widely considered to be a spectrum, and it is argued that we are all on that spectrum to some degree. Some of the common types of autism or different names include; ASD (see above), classic autism, Kanner autism, high functioning autism (HFA), pervasive developmental disorder (PDA), pathological demand avoidance (PDA) and Asperger’s syndrome. Each one has slightly different characteristics, but with a varying degree of common factors too.

The ‘Triad of impairments’ by Lorna Wing really helped me to understand the aspects of autism, these are;

Social Communication – quite simply this is the ability to speak or to communicate with others. Some children with severe autism might never learn to speak whilst others with high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome will be able to form complete sentences and speak fluently. Generally, social communication relates to autistic children and adults finding difficulty in interpreting facial expressions, tone of voice, body language and being able to process language. They might struggle to be able to express their feelings and have a tendency to take things literally as they don’t understand sarcasm or metaphors to easily. One example I can give of this was many years ago when I was annoyed with a large and unexpected car bill in the weeks leading up to Christmas, this lead me to declare ‘that Christmas was cancelled’. My child became quite distressed about this, until I explained that I was only joking and that yes of course Santa Claus would still be visiting. I use sarcasm quite sparingly now.

Social Interaction – we often think of our friends as being quite important, but autistic children often have difficulties in forming these social relationships. They might appear aloof or uninterested in people around them. For some people with Asperger’s syndrome they are aware that they want to make friends, but find it really difficult to interact with people or feel really clumsy and awkward in social situations. Some of the more common signs of an autistic person might express in social situations includes; avoiding eye contact, standing too close to someone and not recognising ‘personal space’, laughing at inappropriate times and showing little interests in a subject matter that is being discussed.

Social imagination – this ability allows us to understand and predict other people’s behaviours, to imagine situations outside of our daily routine or to make sense of abstract ideas or concepts. Children and adults with autism can find it difficult to understand danger, prepare for change and to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings or to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

Individually, problems with social communication, interaction and imagination doesn’t necessarily mean that a child or adult has autism as we can all shut off when someone is talking to us, fail to understand that someone is being sarcastic or even have problems with being emphatic, however, commonly if these things are on-going and prevalent on a large scale then a diagnosis for autism might be needed. I honestly have too many stories to tell of when my child has stood too close to someone or become upset over an abstract comment, but with each one I can look back and smile and remember that even back them some of the things they did were both funny and just a little concerning but thankfully no harm was done.

I think basically, what I have learnt is that if you know one child with autism, then you know one child with autism. Just like people without autism, generalisations cannot be made.

To quote or paraphrase Kingsley - being in Holland isn’t bad or necessarily lonely; it’s just different and quite often beautifully different.