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What is Autism? By Dr Michelle Garnett and Prof Tony Attwood

What is Autism?

There are so many words out there for ASD, including autism, high functioning autism, Asperger’s Disorder, PDD-NOS just for a start. The most commonly used is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a term to describe some unique aspects to the way a person’s brain works. It is unfortunate that the term ASD has the word ‘disorder’ in it, as one little boy with ASD said, “but my brain is very ordered.” We would prefer the “D” in ASD to refer to ‘difference.’ Perhaps when you read ASD, you can think Autism Spectrum Difference! We are going to use the terms autism and ASD in this article

So what are the Differences?

Essentially the person with autism has a brain that does not innately or intuitively understand how to socialise with other people. Knowing how to socialise means knowing things like how to read a face, use body language, start a conversation, knowing why we use greetings and people’s names, and how to infer what people are thinking and expecting. There are degrees to this difference that range from having no idea about socialising, what it is and how to do it, all the way to being able to manage socialising reasonably well, by using other areas of the brain. In addition to having these social difficulties, the autistic person has difficulties with processing the information coming to the brain through the senses, and/or shows rigidity and repetition in their behaviour. In other words, they do not cope well with change or transitions and they tend to like to do things the same way over and over.

ASD, Levels 1, 2 & 3.

The degree to which a person experiences ASD is currently denoted as being Level 1, 2 or 3, based on how much support is needed. The levels of support are described separately for the two key components of ASD: social difficulty and rigidity/ repetitive behaviours (RRBs). Level 1 is assigned when comparatively less support is required, moving up to Level 3 to indicate that considerable support is required. The levels may change over time depending on the person’s stressors, social support and coping strategies.

What Causes Autism?

In most cases autism is known to be genetically transmitted, that is, it is passed on via genes through families. Certain genetic conditions are known to cause autism, for example, fragile X syndrome. There are other pathways to autism, for e.g., ASD is associated with having older parents, adverse obstetric events, and certain medical conditions, for e.g., tuberous sclerosis.

Is Autism Found in Both Boys & Girls?

As our awareness and understanding of the subtle presentations of ASD develops, more and more individuals are being diagnosed with the condition. Indeed, current research suggests that as many as 1 in 52 people now have an ASD diagnosis (CDC, 2021). Similarly, as our awareness and understanding of the way ASD levels 1 and 2 manifests in girls, more and more girls are being diagnosed with ASD. Whilst ASD is known to be more prevalent in boys, our current estimate of the gender ration is 1 girl for every 2 boys (Rutherford, et al., 2016), where the previous estimate was 1:4 (APA, 2013).

Other Common Conditions that Co-Occur with Autism

It is rare to have pure autism, it is a brain difference that tends to co-occur with other brain differences. Intellectual disability, expressive language disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and specific learning disabilities, for e.g., dyslexia, all commonly co-occur with autism. Also, the genes for mood disorders, for e.g., depression, are common in families that have the genes for autism. Therefore, it is common for autistic people to also experience anxiety and/or depression, in part because of genetic transmission.

Understanding Autism

It is important to keep in mind that autism is not an illness or a disease, and so does not need a cure or a treatment (although some of the co-occurring conditions, like anxiety, may need treatment). Autism is a brain difference, and clearly, difference can make life more challenging. However, it is important to equally recognise the gifts and strengths that are a part of the profile of autism and to know that most people with autism become active members of society with successful pursuits and careers, fulfilling relationships and much loved families.

The main problem for people with autism is often not having autism, but the ignorance and misunderstanding that is still so prevalent in our society about autism. Understanding autism and how the condition relates to you, your child or your loved one is a crucial way that you can support yourself or that person and be his or her voice in situations where other people need this understanding.

Every person with autism has a unique personality and distinct likes, dislikes, gifts, strengths and difficulties. Our encouragement is to be a first rate “autie,” not a second-rate neurotypical.

Online Training Programme

All our autism trainings focus on understanding the autistic person’s strengths and challenges, to assist them to utilise their strengths to overcome their challenges.

We recommend our course, Emotion Management for Autistic Children and Adolescents is designed for parents, teachers and professionals. You will learn:

  • why autistic children and teenagers have difficulties managing both their behaviour and their emotions
  • the different ways anxiety presents in an autistic child
  • strategies to manage intense anger in an autistic child or teenager with ASD
  • how to deal with challenging behaviour, meltdowns and shutdowns
  • support strategies to assist the child or teen to overcome depression
  • anxiety management strategies to assist an autistic child to feel calm

We come from a basis of working on strengths and are led by science and over 80 combined years of clinical experience.