AUTISM IS A DEVELOPMENTAL DISORDER.

Autism affects a person’s development, making it delayed or uneven. Autism is on a continuum, with severe autism at one end and milder autism at the other. One of the milder forms is called Asperger’s Syndrome, which affects one in every 300 people, (world-wide). The full range of autistic conditions can be referred to as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (A.S.D.) The two main types were described in 1943.

Persons with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder typically have difficulties in the following areas: sensory, social understanding, general understanding, communication, motor skills, emotions, learning, mental rigidity, avoidance of change, and preoccupation with one or several intense interests. Some autistic individuals, especially those who have the milder forms, have average or above-average intelligence.

For example, normal human babies are born with an inbuilt sense for social understanding. They learn social skills naturally by interacting with other people. For individuals with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, this instinct is either missing or impaired. Autistic individuals have to learn social understanding and social skills as if it were a school lesson. Also, the person doing the teaching needs to know what having autism entails, in order to give the appropriate help.

Autistic Spectrum cognitive processes (thinking and understanding) are different in at least some ways from those of “normal” people. Slower mental processing speeds are the norm, which affects all of life, e.g. speaking. Many Autistic Spectrum individuals find it very difficult, if not impossible, to have a conversation, because their thoughts are several steps behind the other participants’. “Normal” people, not realising the cause of this, sometimes lose patience or make teasing comments.

No matter how high the intelligence level, people on the Autistic Spectrum still have some differences. A number of autistic adults have university degrees, but may still have trouble with other tasks, e.g. checking one’s change in a shop, or buying the groceries. Multi-tasking, making decisions, and coping with interruptions, pressure, and changes to one’s timetable tend to be problematic at any age.

Most autistic people have some, or all, of the five senses turned up too high. Sudden noises or movements are often very startling. The glare of sunlight or lighting can be too strong. Some individuals can not stand certain tastes or smells; some can not stand being hugged or touched, (though others enjoy this). Some Autistic Spectrum persons strongly dislike the feel of sticky substances on the skin, therefore avoiding activities like mixing ingredients with the hands, and finger painting.

Autistic Spectrum ways of learning things are often different from those of “normal” people. Therefore, it is crucial to have one’s differences recognised, e.g. by having a Special Needs Teacher, or a helper who is familiar with autism. Most autistic individuals are strongly visually-oriented, learning best when the information is visual: in pictures or writing. For the same reason, autistic individuals tend to have difficulty following a sequence of spoken instructions. For learning a new task, it helps a lot if the task is broken down into small steps, and each step is then individually and patiently taught. Even for Autistic Spectrum adults who have a university degree, learning new tasks can still be a challenge: when it comes to employment, one can still be in the Special Needs category.

Many persons who have Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulties with co-ordination and movement skills. Persons with other types of Autism may also have these, or, they may be physically agile.

Autistic Spectrum individuals can improve and progress, if given the appropriate recognition and assistance from helpers who are familiar with the condition. However, autism is life-long, so the person will always have some of the characteristics. Certain strengths are also part of the territory, e.g. honesty, conscientiousness, persistence, and fairness.

All this, and much more, is in my book about Mild Autism / Asperger’s Syndrome: “Congratulations! It’s Asperger Syndrome.” It includes childhood and adulthood traits; adult Asperger issues such as relationships, university study, and employment; and helpful hints for others. It is available from --Auckland: Pathfinder Bookshop. Wellington: The Medical Bookshop, Newtown; Cloud 9.

Christchurch: Madras Books & Café; Scorpio Books; Autism NZ National Office.

Dunedin: University of Otago Bookshop.

World: Amazon.com

USA: Barnes & Noble Books. London: Karnac (N-W ); Waterstones (central). Canada: Parentbooks.

Or send NZ $40 to:
Jen Birch,
P.O. Box 17-426, Greenlane,
Auckland, N.Z.;
jenbirch@actrix.gen.nz