Autism spectrum disorder, which is often referred to as ASD, is the medical term used to describe a group of disorders that includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder (also known as atypical autism).
Autism is a neurological variation / difference and is classified as a (life-long) developmental disability. Like all people, those with Autism have their own unique personalities and traits, but commonly share varying degrees of challenges in:
1. Different sensory experiences / differences in experiencing and processing sensory stimuli (sound, smell, touch, etc). Children with Autism may seek out sensory stimulation and / or strongly avoid (fear) sensory input.
2. Non-standard ways of learning and approaching problem solving, for example, learning ‘difficult’ tasks (e.g. calculus) before ‘simple’ tasks (e.g. addition), difficulty with ‘executive functions’, or being simultaneously gifted at tasks requiring fluid intelligence and intellectually disabled at tasks requiring verbal skills. An often natural ability in noticing and identifying patterns around them.
3. Deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects. These ‘special interests’ could be anything from mathematics to ballet, from doorknobs to physics, and from politics to bits of shiny paper.
4. Atypical, often repetitive movement. This includes ‘self-stimulatory’ behaviour such as rocking and flapping, spinning and sorting. This is often referred to as ‘stimming’.
5. Intense need for consistency, routine and order to ‘feel safe’. Holidays, for example, may be experienced more with anxiety than pleasure.
6. Difficulties in understanding and expressing language as used in typical communication, both verbal and non-verbal. Some children with Autism do not gain verbal language skills and / or have limited verbal communication skills and communicate through non-verbal means. Whether verbal or non-verbal, most struggle to use language to explain their emotions and internal state, and to articulate concepts (which is not to say that they do not experience and understand these).
7. Difficulties in understanding, relating too and expressing typical social interaction, for example, having delayed responses to social situations, or behaving in what others might perceive as an ‘inappropriate’ manner to the norms of a given social context (for example, not saying “hello” after another person says “hello”).
8. Autism is a life-long disability; children on the Autism Spectrum become adults with Autism.
‘Symptoms’ associated with ASD appear early in a child’s development and this is why, from a medical perspective, it is considered to be a ‘developmental disorder’. The term ‘spectrum’ is used because it describes the wide variety and differing levels of severity of symptoms found in children with ASD. For example, two children could be diagnosed with ASD, yet one may have an intellectual disability, no spoken language but a very high ability to communicate non-verbally with low ability in daily self help ability; whereas the other may have average or even above average intelligence, appear to have normal speech but have excessive rigid behaviours and adherence to routines. One or both may have significant Sensory Processing dysfunction.