What Is Autism?
Autism is a complex, lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates, relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. It is a spectrum disorder (though the spectrum is not linear!) and also includes ‘sub’ diagnoses such as Asperger’s Syndrome and Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). Around 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, which equates to roughly 1 in a 100, and it appears that males are diagnosed significantly more than females.
What Causes Autism?
Autism is a condition that affects an individual from birth, though research has yet to pinpoint an exact cause.
In the 1990’s, a theory was proposed that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. This was based on the fraudulent findings from Andrew Wakefield, who has since been banned from practicing medicine in the UK. His theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism has been consistently disproved by numerous studies since, but the effects of Wakefield’s study are still being felt with parents refusing to vaccinate their children and potentially putting them - and us! - at risk of catching fatal illnesses.
How Does Autism Affect People?
Autism affects the way in which a person communicates with others (verbally and non-verbally), and also the way in which they perceive the world around them. Not everyone with autism is the same, though there may be similarities in terms of behaviours. Some people with autism are able to live independent lives, whereas others may face additional challenges and require more support.
People with autism may find socialising and social interactions difficult. We may not be aware of them, but there are lots of unwritten rules that we use when talking to others, and these rules aren’t always the same. For example, we speak differently to our life-long friends vs our employer, we know when it’s our turn to speak, and know when it is appropriate to voice an opinion.
Children with autism can find these rules difficult to remember or confusing because they aren't always applied in the same way. They may;
Stand too close to others when in social situations
Appear to be insensitive because they haven’t understood how someone else is feeling
Prefer to be alone rather than with others
Social interactions can often be tiring for children with autism and difficulties ‘reading’ other people can lead to loneliness and isolation. 34% of children with autism say the worst thing about school is being picked on.
Social imagination allows us to understand and predict other people’s behaviour, make sense of abstract ideas and imagine situations outside our ‘normal’ routine.
Children with autism can find it harder to understand abstract concepts and this can mean that these children find it hard to;
Understand others thoughts and feelings
Predict what will happen next
Understand the concept of danger and actions vs consequences
Engage in imaginative play with others
Cope in new or unfamiliar environments
Whilst children with autism struggle with social imagination, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t imaginative! In fact, many people with autism are talented in areas such as music or art.
Children can be ‘under’ or ‘over’ sensitive in any of the senses – including sight, hearing and smell. This means sounds, lights, touch and odours can be painful or very uncomfortable, and some can trigger high amounts of anxiety. To reduce discomfort and anxiety, some children may wear sunglasses indoors or wear ear defenders (these are wonderful!),or have a particular object they like to play with to reduce input externally.
Those children who are under-sensitive may not feel pain or extremes of temperature, so some may rock, spin, bite or hit themselves to stimulate sensation or deal with stress.
Sensory rooms can be great for calming children down, providing they are filled with calming sensory items (fairy lights, bubbles, lava lamps, textured walls).