What are Autism and Asperger’s syndromes?
Click on the link below if the video does not work on your device:
Click on link to a video made by a 22 year old man with autism about his life at secondary school.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.
Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. If you are autistic, you are autistic for life; autism is not an illness or disease and cannot be ‘cured’. Often people feel being autistic is a fundamental aspect of their identity.
Autism is a spectrum condition. All autistic people share certain difficulties, but being autistic will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions, meaning people need different levels of support. All people on the autism spectrum learn and develop. With the right sort of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.
Find out how many people are autistic, how autistic people see the world, how autism is diagnosed, and how you can help.
How is Autism and Asperger’s diagnosed?
A diagnosis is the formal identification of autism, usually by a multi-disciplinary diagnostic team, often including a speech and language therapist, paediatrician, psychiatrist and/or psychologist.
These are some symptoms which may be present:
Difficulties with social communication
Autistic people have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. They may find it difficult to use or understand:
- facial expressions
- tone of voice
- jokes and sarcasm
Some may not speak, or have fairly limited speech. They will often understand more of what other people say to them than they are able to express, yet may struggle with vagueness or abstract concepts. Some autistic people benefit from using, or prefer to use, alternative means of communication, such as sign language or visual symbols. Some are able to communicate very effectively without speech.
Others have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said (this is called echolalia) or talking at length about their own interests.
It often helps to speak in a clear, consistent way and to give autistic people time to process what has been said to them.
Difficulties with social interaction
Autistic people often have difficulty ‘reading’ other people – recognising or understanding others’ feelings and intentions – and expressing their own emotions. This can make it very hard for them to navigate the social world. They may:
- appear to be insensitive
- seek out time alone when overloaded by other people
- not seek comfort from other people
- appear to behave ‘strangely’ or in a way thought to be socially inappropriate.
Autistic people may find it hard to form friendships. Some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about it.
Repetitive behaviour and routines
The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people, who often prefer to have a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. They may want to always travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast.
The use of rules can also be important. It may be difficult for an autistic person to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the ‘right’ way to do it. People on the autism spectrum may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but may be able to cope better if they can prepare for changes in advance.
Many autistic people have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers. An interest may sometimes be unusual. One autistic person loved collecting rubbish, for example. With encouragement, the person developed an interest in recycling and the environment.
Many channel their interest into studying, paid work, volunteering, or other meaningful occupation. Autistic people often report that the pursuit of such interests is fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness.
Autistic people may also experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. For example, they may find certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. Or they may be fascinated by lights or spinning objects.
Read more about repetitive behaviour and routines and sensory processing.
Does it help to have a diagnosis?
Getting a timely and thorough assessment and diagnosis may be helpful because:
- it helps autistic people (and their families, partners, employers, colleagues, teachers and friends) to understand why they may experience certain difficulties and what they can do about them
- it allows people to access services and support.
If I suspect my child has Autism or Asperger’s, what do I do?
Contact your GP and ask for a referral, either to a paediatrician or to a child psychiatrist. Most of these services are available on the NHS, however, waiting lists may be long in which case you may prefer to go to a private provider for an assessment. Most private community paediatricians or child psychiatrists will have the skill to make the diagnosis. If you would like to contact me for an assessment, you are more than welcome to do so.
After your child’s diagnosis
An autism diagnosis can be difficult to come to terms with. You may be coping with a condition you know very little about, and trying to find new ways for everyone to live together and feel supported. Many parents aren’t given any guidance on what to do next. Moving on from a diagnosis can seem daunting. The National Autistic Society is a useful resource with hosts of helpful guidance and advice.
You could also call their Autism helpline: 0808 800 4101
Your child is the same person they have always been. Now that you know they are on the autism spectrum, you can begin to better understand their needs, arrange the right support and help them to maximise their potential.
This is important for autistic children, who can benefit from appropriate, sometimes intensive, support from an early age. It’s also important for families, who may benefit from services such as short breaks.
A diagnosis can help your child to get autism-specific support, but this doesn’t happen automatically. Support can include specific support at school or support from social services or financial assistance to you.
What is the treatment?
The key in helping people with Autism and Asperger’s is first of all to understand them better. It may at times be necessary to treat conditions associated with Asperger’s and Autism, such as anxiety, sleep difficulties or ADHD. There are approaches which helps young people and children cope better with their condition such as SPELL, TEACCH or social stories. The National Autistic Society website describes each approach and has more information about the research behind these approaches. Please see the link:
Useful addresses and telephone numbers
The National Autistic society’s website is a very resourceful guide, full of information, resources and advice.
Local support groups
Click on this link for information on local support groups