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What is Autism?

Autism Awareness Week in 2016 is from the 2nd to the 8th April. The condition has received a lot of press in recent years, and more so in recent weeks with the TV drama “The A Word” in which a young family discover that their young son has autism.

About the Condition

It is a life-long condition, seemingly overwhelmingly affecting boys, that affects how people communicate with others and their interactions with the world. Through the eyes of a child or adult with autism, the world is a mass of senses that they may struggle to process. Some are sensitive to light, noise and smells, and an inability to process them can sometimes cause considerable anxiety.

The major issue for people with autism is that they struggle with emotional connections with others, experience difficulty building friendships or interact on a level that most of us take for granted. Most of us learn, through language and evolutionary hardwiring, how to interact and communicate with others. People with autism have little to no such skill or sense. Some may also struggle with imagination – and so often may struggle to notice sarcasm or “between the lines” meaning. They are often gifted in other areas such as science and maths.

What Autism Is Not

Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that one person with autism may experience it differently from another. Some can live independently but others will need lifelong support from a carer, parent or sibling. Not all people with autism have learning difficulties, but they are more likely to experience some form of struggle with learning. They may have particular interests that others might consider unusual too.
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Autism does not affect an individual’s IQ. People with autism score low to normal IQs, unlike people with mental retardation or learning disabilities (who will have very low IQs, scoring 70 or under). It does not mean a lack of emotion or a lack of interest in social interaction, but it does mean low emotional intelligence. People with autism are not sociopaths (a disorder characterised as strong antisocial tendencies).

Key Differences with Asperger’s Syndrome

Like autism, AS affects far more boys and men than girls and women, and in some ways is indistinguishable from Autism. Asperger’s Syndrome, or simply “Asperger’s”, is on the Autism Spectrum, but they are not the same thing.

How do the two conditions differ?

  • The major determining difference is that people with Asperger’s Syndrome generally have very high IQs and may be considered gifted in areas such as art, music, and even the sciences. They do not have the learning difficulties that people with Autism experience.
  • The other area in which these two differ is that, with Asperger’s, social awkwardness is even greater. With Autism, there is simply difficulty in processing the everyday interactions and a strong preference to avoid it.
  • People with Asperger’s Syndrome may also have obsessive personality traits, good memories or a strong interest in unusual subjects.
  • People with AS are more prone to anxiety and depression as they are typically more aware of their social struggles.

Other Conditions “On the Spectrum”

Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are the two main Autism Spectrum disorders, but there are several others.

ADHD: This condition means that the person with the condition struggles to stay focused on tasks, giving the false impression that they have low intelligence or don’t care. They can also be impulsive, lack concentration, and fidget a lot.

Dyslexia: Arguably the most well-known learning difficulty, people with dyslexia struggle with reading or writing, particularly with words and sequences of words. Once believed to be of low intelligence, it is now known to be unrelated to an individual’s IQ and is considered an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Dyspraxia: or Development Coordination Disorder, is typically characterised by clumsiness, memory problems and low spatial awareness, but also shares a number of attributes that put it on the autism spectrum: social anxiety, struggles with sensory overload, and difficulty communicating, for example.