Developing a Deeper Understanding of Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects a significant portion of the population. Thanks to better diagnostic tools and recognition of this condition, rates of diagnosis continue to rise, which means more people who have ASD are able to access the supports they need.

It’s very important for people who have autism to receive early intervention. Over the last decade important steps have been made to ensure that children with ASD have appropriate supports put in place as soon as possible..

While there has been much progress in diagnosing and supporting individuals with ASD, misconceptions are still common which is why a deeper understanding is needed.

What is ASD?

Researchers believe that ASD is the result of brain structure changes which occur before birth. Several genes contribute to its development and environmental factors such as pollutants and viral infections can also play a role. There is no evidence that vaccines cause ASD.

Autism is considered to occur on a spectrum of high to low functioning. Where people fall on the spectrum depends on their level of functioning. High-functioning individuals show few signs of the disorder while those at the low end of the scale may not be able to communicate verbally or perform basic activities of daily living.

How does it manifest?

As a result of their different brain structure, people who have ASD process information differently, and this most often manifests in the way they communicate and interact socially. People who have autism may be overwhelmed by sensory input more easily, display unusual or repetitive behaviours, experience anxiety and/or find it harder to adapt to change.

While there are certain characteristics that define ASD, it’s very important to remember that those with this condition are unique individuals, with a wide range of skills, behaviours and intelligence levels.

What are some misconceptions? 

ASD is not a mental illness. People on the mid to high functioning end of the autism spectrum are usually capable of managing their lives and making good choices.

Those who have ASD may have a harder time with decisions that require a fast response, such as what to say during an unexpected encounter or what to order at a restaurant if their favorite meal is not available. However, studies have found when it comes to major life choices, people with higher functioning autism are just as skilled as those who do not have autism. This is because they may put a lot of time and reflection into decisions and rely on logic rather than intuition.

Another common misconception is that people with ASD lack imagination. Research has found it takes longer for children who have autism to develop their imagination, but they do engage in pretend play and daydream. Many children who have autism also show advanced abilities when it comes to comparing two things, also known as analogical thinking.

Perhaps the most damaging misconception about people with autism is that they lack empathy. Those who have ASD experience a full range of emotions and have a rich inner life. Due to the way they tend to process information, they may have difficulty identifying how others are feeling, but this is a skill which can often be learned.

What can you do to support people who have ASD?

While everyone on the autism spectrum is different, there are things you can do to support people who have ASD.

*Ask the person how you can best support them. Everyone’s needs are different and it is best to get your information directly from the person you are  supporting.

*Be aware of noise and lighting as loud and/or constant noise and bright and/or flickering light can be unsettling and sometimes painful for people on the spectrum.

*Give advance notice of schedule changes.

*Allow more time to make decisions.

*Teach your child about autism and be inclusive of their classmates who have ASD.

*Provide a quiet space where they can retreat if needed.

*Make the effort to get to know people with ASD so you can appreciate their strengths and unique way of seeing the world.

Everyone benefits from a deeper understanding of autism.