“We should all know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their colour.”
– Maya Angelou
April is Autism Awareness Month, so I’d like to use this post to shed some light on what is becoming an increasingly-diagnosed condition in our world today. My hope is that you’ll get a better understanding of autism and the challenges faced by those on the autistic spectrum.
It’s a compilation of research from various sources – which I won’t list here, as this is not an academic website and it would take a while to compile all of it. But if you would like the sources, please ask.
Also, feel free to comment and add to the info or list of resources.
What is autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autism, describes a group of complex differences in brain development. It affects the way people see the world and respond to stimuli (sound, light, touch, space, smell, taste) in it. Autism is also known as a social communication disorder and affects four major areas of development:
- Language and communication
- Social interaction
- Thinking and behaviour
- Sensory processing
The symptoms of autism can usually be picked up before the age of three, while the severity of the condition and level of support needed varies.
The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely impaired.
What causes autism?
So far, research hasn’t been able to identify the definite cause of autism. However, evidence strongly suggests that genetics plays a role in most cases.
Aside from this, however, there is agreement that autism is no-one’s fault: it is not a parent’s fault that their child has been born with autism. Autism is not the result of bad parenting either. Children with ASD do not choose to ‘misbehave’. What appears to be misbehaviour is often just a reaction to the environment. Those behaviours are merely expressions of the difficulties people with ASD experience.
How common is the condition?
Studies indicate that autism affects 1 in 68 people globally – with the rate of diagnosis growing significantly in recent years. Autism cuts across all ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds – but is four times more likely in males as compared to females.
What challenges do autistic people face?
ASD-related developmental difficulties can manifest in various ways, such as impulsiveness, problems paying attention, learning disabilities, speech delays, emotional disconnection, and poor eye contact.
An estimated one-third of people with autism are non-verbal, with a significant portion also facing intellectual disability (IQ below 70). Children (and adults) with autism can wander off or bolt from safety – giving their families / caregivers significant concern.
Most autistic children have been bullied, while self-harm is also a characteristic that some sufferers experience.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) impacts between 30 to 61 percent of autistic children, and more than half suffer from chronic sleep problems. Anxiety disorders are also common among autistic children and teens.
However, while these conditions may be present in varying degrees among the autistic population, it’s important to note that no two people with autism are alike, so one cannot generalise when discussing challenges that autistic individuals face.
For families and caregivers who look after autistic people, costs are particularly high. In the U.S., it’s estimated that autism costs an estimated $60,000 per year through childhood – with the bulk of this taken up by special services and lost wages due to the increased demands on parents.
With limited specialist school available to autistic children, school attendance is also an issue – with many children on the spectrum not being enrolled in school.
And, of course, autistic children become autistic adults, with even less assistance available. The most recent statistics for unemployment among autistic adults in the United States found only 14% in paid employment, and only 20% of those were university graduates.
What interventions assist autistic people?
Autism is a life-long condition with no known cure. However, the condition can be managed and quality of life can be improved by interventions which teach coping skills to such individuals. Some people with ASD have lower support needs, while others need a lot of help and intensive intervention.
Support measures include:
- putting structure and routine into place,
- speech therapy and/or augmentative communication and alternative communication strategies,
- occupational therapy or sensory integration therapy (to help manage sensory differences),
- naturalistic developmental behavioural interventions (for children under the age of 5),
- parent coaching,
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and
- bio-medical interventions (e.g. change in diet).
On the whole, the earlier intervention is started, the better the outcome is likely to be in the long term. Early intervention is especially important. Most learning is social, therefore learning can be enabled by early intervention models such as the Early Start Denver Model, Autism Navigator, D.I.R. Floortime, and Enhanced Miliieu Teaching – which target very young autistic children’s communication and social-reciprocal skills. The younger the child, the greater the possibility of developing the communication centres in their brains that will then filter into all areas of learning.
Signs of autism
There are numerous signs which indicate possible autism. If your child displays a number of these behaviours and you’re concerned, please arrange a screening with a qualified professional:
- Little awareness of others.
- Self-injurious behaviour, e.g. head banging, scratching or biting.
- Unusual habits (e.g. rocking, hand flapping, spinning of object).
- Delayed / absent / atypical development of speech and language.
- Minimal reaction to verbal input and sometimes acts as though he/she is deaf.
- Sudden laughing or crying for no apparent reason.
- Pursues activities repetitively and cannot be influenced by suggestions of change.
- Displays extreme distress and/or tantrums for no apparent reason.
- Difficulty in interacting with others and little or no eye contact.
- No real fear of dangers.
- Doesn’t make attempts to get parent’s attention; doesn’t follow/look.
- Seems to be “in his/her own world”.
- Odd or repetitive ways of moving fingers or hands.
- Oversensitive to certain textures, sounds or lights.
- Compulsions or rituals (has to perform activities in a special way or certain sequence; is prone to tantrums if rituals are interrupted).
- Preoccupations with unusual interests, such as light switches, doors, fans, wheels.
- Walking up and down repetitively and spinning themselves.
Useful links and resources
There are many autism-specific organisations, so please check around to see what’s available in your country or area.
- Autism South Africa: aut2know.co.za
- Autism Western Cape: http://www.autismwesterncape.org.za/
- Centre for Autism Research in Africa: http://www.cara.uct.ac.za/
- Autism screening professionals in the Western Cape: http://www.autismwesterncape.org.za/service-providers/diagnosis-assessment-2/
Although movies will never be totally accurate, film is a powerful medium for showing the experiences of others and helping one to empathise with their condition. Here are a few prominent movies that centre around autistic characters: