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


  1. The more I learn about it the harder I find it is to explain. I find myself trying to stick to almost child like explanations 'it is a different way of learning things' and leave it at that if I can because I don't have the energy these days to do the deep explanation thing. I totally agree though, when you have met one person with autism you have met ONE person with autism! Jen.

  2. Do you know what? I have never been asked. Of course I tell people that Ana has autism and that it may cause her to behave or react differently.

    The usual response I get is, 'oh' before we never hear from them again

  3. If someone asks me that I tell them that for Max it means sensory and language difficulties. If they ask more then I tell them about what life is like for him, as he's the reason I know what I know.
    Even then though, I'm only just starting to scratch the surface with Max as he's still so young (2yrs 8 months atm).

  4. I learn something new about autism every day and recently I have been learning so much more about the adolescent autistic. It's a wonderfully rewarding life, sometimes incredibly hard, but we know far more than the average professional can ever hope to learn.

    CJ xx

  5. So interesting to hear your views- Jen & CJ i definitely agree- the more I know, the less I understand! I like Marilyn's answer, that's lovely. And Ana, your comment made me LOL!!!!


  6. Very relevant post for me. I have huge difficulty explaining what autism is, and tbh I think the triad is a bit crap. My dude has a little bit of speech, a little imagination and some social skills...but he's as autistic as the day is long. I tend to explain it as a sensory processing disorder, as I feel most of his problems stem from this.

  7. sensory processing disorder is a good one actually. I have been reading the comments and I say the triad when people ask - actually come to think of it they don't really ask, they just nod. I think though that I am probably too tired to remember what goes on from day to day. I am off to attempt the 'putting to bed routine' and gathering energy for it before I plunge into final ebb of fatigue this eve myself!! :0 sounds a bit dramatic, but you know . . . . . .


  8. Hi Jean & Amelia

    I agree, the sensory processing one is one I tend to start with- until their eyes glaze over.....

    I do SO understand about the bedtime stuff....just grappling with mine now ;)


  9. I have three friends with autistic children and each one is different [2 boys, 1 girl.]

    Sometimes, when they're in the mood, I have conversations with these special children. They look at the world differently, more innocently really. Their view points are, at times, very refreshing, stripping away protocol and telling it as it is. They seem very 'literal.' Telling them to 'pull up their sox at school' would result in a physical action not a mental application.

    These children are lucky, as is your daughter; to be bestowed on parents with huge patience and understanding.

  10. Wow. What is autism? I ask myself that daily. My son with Asperger's is fantastically bright and introspective but lacks common sense at times. He's like a grown man with child like qualities in a child's body.

    He's afraid of things that no one else is and has a variety of nightmares that might make a grown man afraid to go to bed at night.

    He eats the same thing everyday without fail and hates any shirt that clings to his neck or has a scratchy tag.

    He'll only do certain things at certain places because they are not the same when done out of their normal environ, like what he eats at one places he says isn't the same at my house so he won't have it.

    Autism is a mysterious set of restrictions and nuances.

  11. Even after 21 years i still dont know what to say when someone asks!

  12. Just found your blog...what a relief to know that I don't have the only child that takes unusal items eg... a bag of sugar, or dessicated coconut, eats it and then hides the rest either under the sofa or his bed, or behind books in the bookcase!

    Going to read more!


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