Parents of children with autism quickly become authorities on the subject. But what about in-laws, teachers, coaches, and cousins? Few people outside the immediate family really want to read 20 closely written pages from the National Institutes of Health. This brief, pithy article provides the bare bones basics for a quick read – along with links to more in-depth information for those who want to know.
People with autism can be a little autistic or very autistic. Thus, it is possible to be bright, verbal, and autistic as well as mentally retarded, non-verbal and autistic. A disorder that includes such a broad range of symptoms is often called a spectrum disorder; hence the term “autism spectrum disorder.” The most significant shared symptom is difficulty with social communication (eye contact, conversation, taking another’s perspective, etc.).
Asperger Syndrome (AS) is considered to be a part of the autism spectrum. The only significant difference between AS and High Functioning Autism is that people with AS usually develop speech right on time while people with autism usually have speech delays. People with AS are generally very bright and verbal, but have significant social deficits (which is why AS has earned the nickname “Geek Syndrome”).
If you’ve seen Rainman or a TV show about autism, you may think you know what autism “looks like.” In fact, though, when you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met ONE person with autism. Some people with autism are chatty; others are silent. Many have sensory issues, gastrointestinal problems, sleep difficulties and other medical problems. Others may have social-communication delays – and that’s it.
So far as medical science is aware, there is at present no cure for autism. That’s not to say that people with autism don’t improve, because many improve radically. But even when people with autism increase their skills, they are still autistic, which means they think and perceive differently from most people. Children with autism may receive many types of treatments. Treatments may be biomedical, sensory, behavioral, developmental or even arts-based. Depending upon the child, certain treatments will be more successful than others.
You may have seen or heard news stories about possible causes of autism. Theories range from mercury in infant vaccines to genetics to the age of the parents to almost everything else. At present, most researchers think autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors – and it’s quite possible that different people’s symptoms have different causes.
Autism is a lifelong diagnosis. For some people, often (but not always) those who receive intensive early intervention, symptoms may decrease radically. People with autism can also learn coping skills to help them manage their difficulties and even build on their unique strengths. But a person with autism will probably be autistic throughout their lives.
Even “high functioning” autism is challenging for parents. “Low functioning” autism can be overwhelming to the entire family. Families may be under a great deal of stress, and they need all the non-judgemental help they can get from friends, extended family, and service providers. Respite care (someone else taking care of the person with autism while other family members take a break) can be a marriage and/or family-saver!
You may have heard of a wonderful “autism school,” or read of a child doing amazingly well in a particular type of classroom setting. While any given setting may be perfect for any given child, every child with autism has unique needs. Even in an ideal world, “including” a child with autism in a typical class may not be the best choice. Decisions about autistic education are generally made by a team made up of parents, teachers, administrators and therapists who know the child well.
The media is full of stories about autism, and many of those stories are less than accurate. For example, you may have heard that people with autism are cold and unfeeling, or that people with autism never marry or hold productive jobs. Since every person with autism is different, however, such “always” and “never” statements simply don’t hold water. To understand a person with autism, it’s a good idea to spend some time getting to know him or her – personally!
It may seem that autism is a wholly negative diagnosis. But almost everyone on the autism spectrum has a great to deal to offer the world. People with autism are among the most forthright, non-judgemental, passionate people you’ll ever meet. They are also ideal candidates for many types of careers.