Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)
Autism is described as “a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world” (1). One in 100 people are on the autistic spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK (2). Beyond Autism have an informative picture on their website listing some of the statistics for the UK if you would like to find out more.
So what does all this really mean?
Often people hear the word autism and think of Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” (1981), and assume that all autistic people have a special talent. Some people with autism do excel in one particular area, but this does not mean that all autistic people are like this as autism affects people in different ways. In fact, only 28% of people with autism have a special talent (3).
The way a person with autism understands and interacts with the world can be broken down into a few different areas:
- social communication
- social interaction
- repetitive and restrictive behaviours
- over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch
- highly focused interests or hobbies
- extreme anxiety, meltdowns and shutdowns
Autistic people, tend to take things very literally. Picture this: a young boy who has autism is in a classroom and the teacher gives him praise by saying “you’re on fire!” The boy then checks his head for heat. A phrase that most people would be pleased to hear caused this boy some concern.
It’s not just understanding communication that a person with autism may struggle with. There is also a condition called echolalia which is often associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Echolalia is when a person repeats, or echoes, sounds words and phrases. Sometimes immediately after hearing them, sometimes at a later point. Echolalia can be used to give the person more time to process what has just been said to them, it can be self-stimulating or it can help the person to communicate in more stressful situations (4).
When we are communicating, only a small percentage of the communication is based on the words we use. As well as the words we say, we rely heavily on tone and body language (non-verbal cues) to communicate. However, for some autistic people, non-verbal cues can also be misunderstood or missed which leads to confusion (4).
Social interaction differs from communication as it focuses more on the ability to recognise and understand others feelings and intentions whilst expressing their own feelings. Some people with autism can often be hyper-sensitive to emotion (5). They may very deeply feel what others are feeling, but do not know how to process or deal with it. This could lead to an inappropriate reaction like laughing or they may react physically.
When overwhelmed by a situation, a person with autism will seek out a quieter space or they may act in a manner that seems socially inappropriate. The response given may not be what is a typical response in that situation. They may laugh when they hear upsetting news, not because they find it funny, but because they are unsure of what to say or do.
“The greatest discomfort for autistic people can be the social one. For me, I was confused by the way people behaved.” – Chris Packham, CBE and National Autistic Society Ambassador
Repetitive and restrictive behaviour
Repetitive and restrictive habits are more a sign of high-functioning autism (5). The point of repetitive and restrictive habits is to bring an element of control to a seemingly chaotic world. In a busy school where there are a lot of people, especially when moving between classes, a young person with autism may try to block out the noise and other people by focusing on their own behaviour. The person may hum loudly or flap their hand in front of their face.
Routines are also important. The world often seems chaotic to someone with autism, so routines help bring a level of control and calm. Unexpected changes to routines can be distressing and cause anxiety and even meltdowns, because that element of control has gone.
Over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch
Autistic people may avoid certain situations because of sensitivity issues. Background noise can be unbearably loud, causing anxiety or even physical pain. Ever seen someone walking around the shops with ear defenders on? Chances are, they have a hyper-sensitivity to sound and find the shops unbearable without them.
Autistic people will avoid certain everyday situations because of their sensitivity issues. Some autistic people are able to use coping strategies, like noise cancelling headphones or going out at quieter times. There are some venues that do autistic friendly times. For example, some cinemas offer autistic friendly screenings where they leave the lights on.
The other extreme is an under-sensitivity. Imagine a girl in a food technology class who grabs a hot pan, burning the skin. She does not drop the pan. She calmly puts it down, seemingly unaware that she is hurt.
Highly focused interests or hobbies
Many autistic people have specific interests; these can change over time or be life-long (1). They get huge pleasure from their own interests. However, the downside is that sometimes the level of focus on one topic leaves little room for anything else (6).
Extreme anxiety, meltdowns and shutdowns
When it all becomes too much, people with autism can experience a meltdown. These meltdowns happen when they become so overcome with anxiety that they can no longer cope. A meltdown means that the person temporarily loses control of their behaviours. The loss of control could be anything from shouting and screaming to lashing out by kicking, hitting or biting. Having witnessed a number of meltdowns knowing how to deal with a meltdown, can vary as it is very different for each person.
A shutdown can seem less intense from the outside, but is equally debilitating for the individual. They withdraw into themselves until they feel that they are able to cope again.
Making mainstream education more accessible
There are many strategies and methods that can be put in place to enable young people with autism to access mainstream education. For example, timetables are great – this enables a young person to know exactly where and when they should be somewhere. Prior warning of any changes to a timetable will also help to reduce anxiety. Also, wearing ear-defenders while walking between classes or having a “buddy” can help to reduce anxiety.
If a young person struggles with communication there are visual aids like social stories or the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) that can be used. If the person struggles with understanding social situations, a social story (which looks a little like a comic strip) can be used to map out the situation and help the person to understand that there may have been a different intent to what they thought. The person can keep this to look back on and learn from it.
If you are here reading this blog, then this is a great start. Understanding, even a little bit, about autism will make such a difference as you will be able to recognise autistic traits in others and respond appropriately or know when to seek further advice.
The autistic spectrum is a bit like a long piece of string; where a person holds onto that piece of string may determine their interactions with the world and their ability to cope with daily life. A person on one end may react in a very extreme way and be very physical, while a person at the other end of the string may just appear a little inappropriate.
If you would like to find out more about autism, there is a reference list below. There is also a resources list.
1) National Autistic Society https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism
3) Beyond Autism https://www.beyondautism.org.uk/about-autism/understanding-autism/statistics/
4) London Image Institute https://londonimageinstitute.com/how-much-of-communication-is-nonverbal/
6) Applied Behavioural Analysis Programs https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisprograms.com/lists/5-symptoms-of-high-functioning-autism/