What is Autism? This is a question which many thousands of books and PhDs have been written on.
It is a complex question with many definitions, opinions and answers.
For many parents who hear that their child has Autism for the first time, searching the web presents a large quantity of information which can be overpowering and difficult reading.
The Oxford Dictionary defines Autism as “a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.”
Autism is something we will all probably encounter at one time in our life or another. If you or a member of your family is not personally affected by the condition, it is likely you will know or meet someone who is – and yet many people do not have any great understanding of the condition.
The Autism Spectrum is a very wide one, with people affected in a variety of ways, to a great number of varying degrees and no two people on the spectrum are affected in entirely the same way.
The areas of difficulty for those on the spectrum can largely be summed up under 4 headings:
- Social Communication
- Social Imagination
- Social Interaction
- Sensory Processing
For more information on how these difficulties most commonly manifest themselves see our “Common Traits” page.
Summing up the condition for a person who has no prior knowledge of the condition can be challenging – how do you explain an area so large and complex on simple and easy to understand level?
We like to use the analogy of outer space:
Imagine if you were put in a rocket tomorrow and flew into outer space, landing sometime later in a planet, unknown to you, inhabited by an alien population.
You wouldn’t know the local rules, laws or customs, you wouldn’t know how to engage or find common ground with the alien population. You would struggle to cope in day-to-day circumstances in alien schools, workplaces and the alien social scene.
In order to cope, you try to observe and rationalise how the aliens behave.
You look at situations, which cannot necessarily be easily defined, and yet you try and define them as “black” or “white” in an effort to comprehend what is going on around you and how to negotiate your way around it.
You construct a routine to try and stop anything which moves you outside this safe zone taking place, you struggle to keep your cool around the local smells, textures and noises and, feeling so different, alone and afraid, you feel anxious and may even withdraw or opt out of socialising.
Instead you might become used to your own company. You might develop fascinations or obsessions with specific subjects or find you are constantly amused by your own thoughts. You might feel hyperactive and struggle with concentration.
This isn’t a scientific definition of course, but it gives a sense of what it is like to have Autism, to not understanding the “rules of engagement” or how to go about socialising and coping with the world around you.
Our central message however is that Autism owns nobody, it is simply a part of some people. A different way of thinking and behaving.
Autism defines no one and you must always look (and listen!) to the person not the label. Only then can you truly understand and support a person living with the condition.