What is Autism?
- Autism is a developmental disorder that affects roughly 0.6% of the population and has serious effects on a child's ability to develop language, communication and normal patterns of social interaction.
- Between 70-80% of all autistic people are male.
Wing (1981) described autism as involving a 'triad of impairments', consisting of the following:
- Abnormal social interaction - this stems from difficulties in empathising; the ability to see the world from the point of view of others and understand their thoughts and feelings.
- Impariments in verbal and nonverbal communication - people with autism find it hard to understand things like irony, metaphors and figurative speech - they are over-literal.
- Lack of pretend play/restricted range of interests and insisence on routine.
What is Autism? Continued...
Autism has been frequently characterised with reference to these three areas/symptoms. However, there are many other symptoms that occur in autistic people.
- Sensory hyper and hyposensitivity - people with autism may often find certain normal perceptual experiences either highly uncomfortable or highly stimulating. For example, some autistic children enjoy alternately touching cold and hot things. However, they may also become extremely distressed by slightly loud noises such as the rain.
- Perceptual overload - autistic people will find it hard to deal with situations in which lots of unfamiliar information is processed. For example, when walking down a busy street or going to a new school or college.
- Imitation difficulties - older children with autism find it hard to switch points of view when asked to copy an action involving both hands, this links to the fact that autistic people find it hard to feel empathy.
- Echolalia - meaningless repetition of words or phrases.
- Excessive attention to detail and low use of context.
- Complete mutism in extreme cases - an inability to learn language.
The Autistic Spectrum
Because of the range of symptoms that can manifest in sufferers, and the differences in severity between people has caused professionals to speak of the 'autistic spectrum' and of 'autistic spectrum disorders' rather than of autism itself.
- For example, Asperger's syndrome is a condition on the spectrum where there are no major language learning problems and the person has 'normal' intelligence. However, some people with Asperger's syndrome will have savant skills, an amazing ability in a specific area.
- Although, sufferers still have serious problems with social interaction, empathy and using language in complex ways.
- Asperger's affects about 0.3% of the population, with a male to female ration at 4:1.
Effects of Autism on child development
- Due to feeling a lack of empathy and in understanding others thoughts and feelings, autistic sufferers tend to find it hard to make friends.
- Autistic people tend to live in their own world, focusing their attention on things they like playing or learning about a particular area of knowledge, rather than on interacting with other humans.
- However, advice tells us that autistic children should be encouraged to make friends, even if they do find it hard or uncomfortable. These friendships are often easier to create if they revolve around activities such as computers.
- Parents can help by inviting other children around to their house, and teachers by making sure that autistic children are playing with other children at school. This is especially important in order to reduce bullying, which is a major problem for autistic children.
- Bauminger and Kasari (200) studied loneliness in high-functioning autistic children between 8 and 14 years old.
- It was reported that autistic children were lonelier than other children but that they understood loneliness less.
- Autistic children reported to having at least one friend, but these friendships were of less quality than the friendships between non-autistic children, providing less companionship and secruity.
- Due to autistic children's problems with social understanding, it is likely they did not understand these concepts and did not realise what they were missing out on.
- The study suggests that autism affects a child's development in terms of not allowing to make friendships in the way as children without autism do. However, with encouragement children with autism are able to make friends and share interests with others; this reduces bullying and develops their social skills.
Problems with communication
- It is hard to generalise communication difficulties in autistic people because of the range of severity. For example, in extreme cases, some are completely mute whilst others are fluent language users.
- They will often talk at great length about a subject or area that interests them, such as computers, trains etc, but they will not respond to other people's interest and so will not interact in return.
- Autistic people tend to not interact when communicating, but simply broadcast information.
- There are also problems with non-verbal communication. They might not looking you in the eye at all, some will stare inappropriately and have trouble using gestures.