Autism is a lifelong condition but the quality of life for each person can be greatly improved with the right care and support. The earlier that appropriate support can be given, the better the lifelong outcomes for each person and consequently, their families.  People with autism can develop their skills, explore interests, improve physical health and improve social interaction and, in many cases, can find employment.  All people with autism can, and do, learn and develop with the right sort of support.

National figures indicate that autism affects at least 1 person in every 100.  The 2011 Census figures for Bedfordshire indicated that there were 615,100 people in the county.  Based on these figures, it means that there are likely to be well over 6,000 people with autism in Bedfordshire alone.

It is more commonly diagnosed in males than females, although recent research has indicated that females are under diagnosed as they tend to mask their difficulties.

The exact cause of autism is unknown although ongoing research strongly suggests a genetic cause and the condition tends to run in families.  It’s probable that several factors contribute, but essentially it is a neurological developmental condition – or, put simply, the brains of people with autism are differently wired.

It is described as a hidden disability because most people with autism are no different in appearance than anyone else yet can be severely impacted by their autism.  Autism is a ‘spectrum’ condition – affecting different people in different ways and to different, often fluctuating, extents.

Autism chiefly affects social communication and interaction, social imagination and sensory processing.  Some individuals with autism may never develop any speech whilst others may speak fluently, using full sentences.    

Individuals may experience difficulties in any of the following areas of social communication:

  • Processing language and interpreting facial expressions, body language or tone of voice.
  • Understanding figures of speech or metaphors. Their literal understanding means that usually they will think you mean exactly what you say.  Therefore, they would find metaphors such as “she bit my head off” confusing and even frightening. Sarcasm and humour are often meaningless to them.
  • Following long or complicated sentences; they might only be able to follow one simple instruction at a time, no matter what their level of intelligence is. Therefore, communication in school or the workplace is often an area of difficulty for individuals with Asperger Syndrome even though they appear to have good verbal skills.
  • Explaining how they feel; often they do not have enough ‘emotional literacy’ to know how they are feeling – for example, they may experience anxiety as physical pain and undergo medical examination for this without realising the underlying cause.
  • Some like to repeat the last word of your sentence when asked a question; some may repeat the whole question, to help them process what you have asked. Others may say things more than once – echolalia.

In terms of social interaction, a person with autism may appear withdrawn, aloof or uninterested in the people they meet and have difficulties around social relationships. Their ability to develop friendships is generally very limited.  People with some forms of autism such as Asperger Syndrome also have these difficulties, but are often more aware that they have difficulties.  They may want to make friends and be a part of society but feel awkward or clumsy in social situations.

 

Some of the things you might notice are:

  • Avoiding eye contact (because they cannot process the information overload of speech, facial expression and body language – or they may find eye contact physically painful).
  • Standing too close when talking to someone – unaware of personal space.
  • Not realising when the person they are talking to is cross or tired.
  • Laughing or speaking at inappropriate times; interrupting or remaining fixed on a topic of their own choosing.
  • Showing no interest in other people’s opinions or interests.

These behaviours are often taken as a sign of rudeness, even though there is no intention to be rude, which further affects their ability to socialise effectively, should they want to.

Autism also means that the person will experience varying degrees of difficulty with social imagination.  Social imagination allows us to understand and predict other people’s behaviour, make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine or experience. Difficulties with social imagination mean that people with autism find it hard to:

  • Imagine the world from someone else’s perspective and understand that other people may have different thoughts and feelings from their own.
  • Interpret other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions.
  • Predict what will happen next, or what could happen next.
  • Understand the concept of danger, for example that running onto a busy road poses a threat to them.
  • Engage in interpersonal or imaginative play, unless it is something they have copied, in which case they may pursue this rigidly and repetitively.
  • Prepare for change and plan for the future.
  • Cope in new or unfamiliar situations or with new and unfamiliar people.

People with autism usually have a degree of sensory processing difference which means they can be extremely sensitive to sounds, tastes, smells, light or touch.  They can be hypersensitive (over-sensitive) or hyposensitive (under-sensitive) or both.  This can cause them distress or even physical pain;  e.g. wearing a woollen jumper, or the flickering of a fluorescent light may physically cause extreme pain or, indeed, extreme fascination and pleasure.  Visually, they might see detail but not the whole picture, or everything in a scene may appear the same size or distance.  Aurally, they might hear all the sounds in the environment at the same volume.  Even ordinary noises might hurt their ears.

On top of all this, many have problems with balance and the awareness of their body in space.  They may:

  • Bump into things
  • Be awkward or clumsy with tools
  • Press things too hard or too softly
  • Keep cutting or grazing themselves
  • Flap their hands