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What is Autism?

Searching the web for an answer to the question ‘What Is Autism?’ presents a large quantity of information which can be overpowering and difficult reading.

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 Oxford Dictionary defines Autism as:

“A mental condition, present from early childhood, characterised by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.”

AsIAm defines Autism as a complex, invisible condition which a person is born with.  Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition which means that the way a person communicates, interacts and understands other people and the world, is different to those who do not have the condition.

An autistic person will have a different understanding of the world, a different way of seeing the world and experience things differently to someone who is not on the spectrum. This presents an individual with challenges in areas that come naturally to others, but it can also present strengths and abilities due to that ability to think differently.

Autism exists as a spectrum 

which means it impacts different people, in different ways, to differing degrees, at different times and in different situations.

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 difference for those on the spectrum can largely be summed up under the following headings:

Social Interaction

Repetitive and restrictive patterns of behaviour

Sensory Processing

Experiencing Autism

Summing up what autism is 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 a simple and easy to understand level?

Now that we have examined the basic facts around autism and addressed some of the common misconceptions, it is important for us to practically explore autism’s impact on a person’s daily life to understand the social realities behind these facts.

Summing up Autism 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 train analogy.

The Train Analogy

Imagine what it would be like if you were to be picked up suddenly and dropped into the middle of a packed rush hour subway in downtown Tokyo.

To begin with, you are overwhelmed by the number of people in your personal space – the subway is so packed that you literally cannot move. Lots of people are talking to each other at once, to the point that you can barely hear yourself think. One person standing next to you may wear very strong perfume. Another person may have bad breath from forgetting to brush their teeth. The environment around the subway makes you extremely uncomfortable on a sensory level and you cannot wait to get off and out into the city.

The subway arrives and everyone disembarks. Every other person begins to walk in the direction they need to go in. But you find the signs around the station very confusing and you don’t know how to leave the station. Doing the logical thing, you approach another passenger to ask for directions. You can’t tell from his body language or facial expression whether he is happy to help or annoyed to be stopped. He is speaking very quickly in Japanese and is using local expressions you know nothing about – you cannot follow his instructions as you are unsure about what he is saying to you.

At this stage, you get more anxious – you find the unfamiliar, busy Subway station overwhelming and you cannot communicate effectively with locals around you. You try to go out alone, you look for signs on the wall and try to follow these signs towards the exit. You relax as you feel you are making progress and moving in the right direction. However, you now completely rely on the signs to leave the station. As you approach the final turn the sign before the exit is missing. While everyone else in the station knows how to leave from this point, you have no idea and find yourself right back at square one.

What does the Train Analogy have to do with Autism?

Firstly it’s important to acknowledge in this scenario you aren’t less capable than the other passengers on the train,  just different. Day to day activities such as sitting in classroom or commuting may be just as big a culture shock for an autistic person.

Different cultures can be stressful but most of us still like to experience them. Autistic people want to do the same things as other people, but being met halfway can make the difference between being part of the community and being cut off.

Fundamentally, being autistic is like living in a world that is not built for you, and the earlier example helps us highlight some fundamental realities of the condition, namely differences in sensory processing, communication, reading social situations and managing anxiety and stressful situations.

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