Thursday, 10 June 2010
What is Autism?
What is autism?
I wish I had a pithy answer I could dish up every time I get asked this question.
It's not that I don't know what it is, although sometimes the more I know, the harder it is to understand.
Technically, the definition is characterised as a 'triad of impairments': difficulties with social interaction, social communication and social imagination.
I remember hearing this at the first talk I went to on autism and saying, 'yes, but what does that MEAN?!'
To me, the three strands of autism seem remarkably similar and essentially they describe social difficulties.
Furthermore, there are other criteria which may now been included in the latest diagnostic criteria (the DSM V Manual of Psychiatry), most significantly the sensory processing difficulties that so many people living with autism experience.
But as a definition, saying someone has social difficulties trivialises what autism is- we all know plenty of people who lack social skills- this doesn't make them autistic.
Saying a person has social difficulties in no way helps you to explain to someone why the apparently normal-looking child in front of you has their fingers in their ears and is screaming at the top of their lungs or why they've just tried to run up an escalator backwards or why they've just stolen a bag of sugar, eaten half of it and hidden it under the sofa!
In essence, it is a very complex and subtle difference in the brain (as genetic research is now showing) which causes the person to perceive the world in a very different and often difficult way.
Added to that, every autistic person is different.
Recent gene research suggests that many genes cause autism and not every person is affected in exactly the same way- this is clearly why there is so much variation across the autistic spectrum.
When you've met one autistic person, you've just met ONE autistic person.
So, what do you know about autism?
What do you say when somebody asks you what autism is?
Painting by Lyla