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Autism - a problem you may not recognise


April 2012

Autism - a problem you may not recogniseYou will, I am sure, have heard of autism at some point, but in fact the problem is much more common than is generally realised. Some experts estimate that in the UK one in every 100 suffers from a level of autism, with men being more affected than women.

You can’t catch autism. Research is ongoing to work out whether it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors that bring about the changes in the development of the brain that results in autism.

Whatever the cause, trying to define autism is very difficult. This is because it is not a clear cut problem. Some diseases and disabilities are obvious and easy to understand , autism is right at the other end of the spectrum. It is a complicated condition because while people with autism may share certain difficulties, they may be affected in very different ways and at very different levels. Looking at a person, there is generally no way you can tell he or she is suffering from autism.

Generally people suffering from autism will have problems in three main areas, in social communication, social interaction and social imagination.

Social communication is something most of us pick up intuitively. We can interpret facial expressions and tone of voice and usually realise when someone is being sarcastic. Someone with autism can find it very hard to interpret these aspects properly, or at all, and may take words literally. Body language can convey a wide range of meanings but a person with autism may miss this entirely. In some cases, speech can be affected; people with autism can find it hard to enjoy light hearted banter. They can revert to repeating what the other person has said or talk at length about their own interests.

Social interaction is another linked area where people with autism are affected. Generally they can have immense problems recognising and understanding emotion and feelings in other people. When you examine society, and how you behave with friends or colleagues, you will see there are a number of unspoken rules to which we all comply. For instance, we don’t pry too deeply into personal areas or reveal too much about our own personal affairs in a general conversation, especially with people we don’t know very well. We don’t stand really close to someone we have just met; we don’t suddenly start up an inappropriate area of conversation. People with autism may do one or all of these things without understanding any of the implications. They can also find it very difficult to recognise how someone else is feeling, and therefore their response may be totally inappropriate or inadequate.
People suffering from autism can find it hard to make real friendships because of this, although they may love to be with people. They often have trouble in expressing their own feelings, emotions or needs.

The third main area affecting autism sufferers is difficulty with social imagination. Again this is a linked area involving the understanding and interpretation of other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions. It can also affect a person’s concept of what will happen next, the imagination of what will occur as the next step in the action they are about to take. This can lead to problems both in everyday life and also in long term planning.

Some people may show all the characteristics above very strongly; others may only be lightly affected in certain areas. No wonder autism is a difficult problem to assess and explain.

On top of this, autism can often bring certain definite characteristics such as a love of routines, which can result in tightly adhering to a routine even when circumstances have clearly changed. Sensory sensitivity is another characteristic and can involve any or all of the five senses; perhaps sensitivity to background noise or to certain smells or even certain fabrics.

Autism can affect some people severely so that they need special care and support throughout their lives. Others are affected only in certain areas or at different levels. There are also other forms of autism; for instance asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism which brings with it fewer problems with speech but can still cause major problems in the processing and understanding of words and language.

Today, now the problem has been identified, there is a lot of support available. The National Autistic Society (www.autism.org.uk/) has a wealth of information and the chat forum on www.talkaboutautism.org.uk can also be helpful.


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