The A word

A number of you may not have a background in Psychology, or Developmental Psychology. You may have never have worked with or even met anyone diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Condition. You may be wondering what this invisible condition is, why we call it a spectrum and why we should study collaboration in children with this diagnosis.

Hopefully, this will be revealed gradually with this blog. Today, I will start by addressing what Autism Spectrum Conditions are.

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) come under the umbrella of developmental disorders. These are a cluster of conditions, which originate in early childhood and impact, or interrupt, typical development.

Autism specifically is a neurodevelopmental disorder; that is, the condition affects neurological development. This, in turn, can impact upon a number of abilities and daily functioning. The areas of impact can differ greatly according to the individual but can include: language development, social and communication abilities, one’s ability to learn and behaviour patterns.

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A unique aspect of ASC compared to other developmental disorders is that in can influence the way that someone sees and experiences the world. Many individuals with ASC have differences in sensory processing and can be either over or under sensitive to sensory stimuli, such as sight or sound.

The differences in the way individuals with autism experience the world and the difficulties in social communication can also result in significant behavioural challenges.

Why is it a Spectrum?

Individuals with ASC can all experience the condition differently. Whilst there are common symptoms that do allow for diagnosis, there are no blanket rules as to which symptoms will be exhibited or which areas the individual will struggle with.

There is huge variability in skill and ability levels in ASC; for example, some people may also have an intellectual disability, whereas others may have average or above average intelligence.

Is there a Cure?

Autism is a life-long condition. There is no miracle ‘cure’ but there are interventions and ways of interacting that can help to alleviate the difficulties that people with autism face.

Many now argue in favour of neurodiversity; stating that there is no need for a ‘cure’ and that there is merely a discrepancy between how people with autism interact with the world and how our society works. Neurodiversity suggests that neurological differences, like autism, should be championed and recognised as any other human individual difference.

What are the Causes?

The cause of autism is currently unknown. Many theories have been presented and discounted – if we mention ‘refrigerator mothers’ or vaccines, I will truly pull my hair out. No, vaccines do not cause autism – see video below for more information.

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Some research does point towards a genetic component (e.g. Wang et al., 2009), other conditions that may disrupt neurological development in the womb (Wang et al., 2014) and paternal age (Reichenberg et al., 2006).

Researchers have not ruled out environmental factors but they have not isolated any factors that can contribute; however, maternal behaviour has been widely refuted.

What does Autism look like?

You can’t see autism; there is often nothing that sets these individuals apart from others. However, people with ASC may behave or communicate a little differently.

Some of the signs listed below may help to understand how autism can impact upon an individual’s life and what they may be experiencing.

Communication Differences:

  • Some people with autism may have proficient and fluent verbal communication, others may have limited, phrase speech or use isolated words to make their needs known and others may be non-verbal.

  • Some may vary the pitch, intonation or rate of speech in a manner that may seem unusual to others.
  • Individuals with ASC can sometimes find it difficult to convey their emotions using speech or gesture.
  • There may also be difficulties in holding a conversation; this may be linked to the difficulty in understanding the social expectation of turn-taking.
  • Some individuals with ASC may use exaggerated facial expressions.

Social Interaction Differences:
  • Some may avoid making eye contact, whereas others may exaggerate their eye contact and engage intently and overwhelmingly in locking eye contact.
  • There may be a difficulty in understanding the appropriateness of behaviours or topics for a social setting.
  • May avoid certain types of physical contact or affection but rather seek different forms of physical connection, such has deep hand or foot squeezes.
  • There can also be a tendency to engage in solitary activities, a preference which may stem from restricted interests or purely a difficulty in making social connections.

Repetitive or Restrictive Behaviours and Interests:

  • Overwhelming interests in a particular topic e.g. buses, trains! Or a particular interest or like for specific films, which may be watched over and over – oh Madagascar, how many times have I seen you!
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  • May engage in repetitive movements, or self-stimulating behaviours – AKA ‘stimming’, such as rocking, flapping ribbons or tapping a particular hand.
  • Might wish to other eat specific foods or eat in a particular way.
  • May have an overwhelming desire to stick to particular routines, such as washing and dressing in a particular way, or engage in ritualistic behaviours, such as touching particular places before leaving the house.

If you want to know a little more and for a more expressive and eloquent explanation of autism, please see the TED talk below by Wendy Chung – it’s only 15 minutes and is a great talk!

References
Wang, K., Zhang, H., Ma, D., Bucan, M., Glessner, J. T., Abrahams, B. S., … Hakonarson, H. (2009). Common genetic variants on 5p14.1 associate with autism spectrum disorders. Nature, 459(7246), 528–533.
Wang, S. S.-H., Kloth, A. D., & Badura, A. (2014). The Cerebellum, Sensitive Periods, and Autism. Neuron, 83(3), 518–532.
Reichenberg A, Gross R, Weiser M, Bresnahan M, Silverman J, Harlap S, Rabinowitz J, Shulman C, Malaspina D, Lubin G, Knobler HY, Davidson M, Susser E. (2006). Advancing Paternal Age and Autism. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 63(9)1026-1032. 

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