It is difficult for anyone who is not on the spectrum to understand the daily barriers that affect a person with autism. These barriers are due to their perception and experience of the world which can be so extreme as to prevent them from leading a normal life.
The National Autistic Society describes autism as:
"Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways."
Autism will not only have an impact on the way the person communicates and relates to others, it will also have a profound affect on the way the person responds to and interacts with the environment. This often manifests in their behaviour. It is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that has multiple symptoms that begin before the child is 3 years old. These include:
- Difficulty understanding other people's mental state and emotions, so not being able to respond accordingly.
- Difficulty with verbal and non verbal communication.
- Repetitive behaviour (words and actions) with rigid rule governed rituals.
These symptoms are variable in their severity from one individual to another. This results in the use of the term "spectrum".
Children with autism have difficulty making sense of the world. This is mainly due to them having difficulty processing the sensory stimuli from their environment which can cause them a great amount of anxiety. the world is a confusing place for them and they are often over loaded with sounds, smells, sights, tastes and sensations that may appear vivid and extreme, disjointed, or even lacking in some way. These children will try to create some sort of order for themselves so that they can gain a feeling of security in the total chaos they experience daily.
The difficulty they have in processing daily sensory information is referred to as Sensory Processing Disorder. It can cause a great amount of stress and anxiety as well as inappropriate or difficult behaviour. They may feel physical pain at times and find that they are unable to express this in words. They often either shut down, or react to the over load of stimuli. Sensory Processing Disorder can result in the person being hypersensitive or hyposensitive to stimuli whereby they can over react or under react to e.g. sound, touch or light.
The main areas of processing difficulties are seen when a child is hypersensitive or hyposensitive to the seven senses which are sight, sound, touch, taste, smell as well as balance (vestibular) and body awareness (proprioception) - see previous posting on Sensory Integration (1 and 2). The results of these sensitivities are seen in the person's behaviour. For example, a child with hypersensitive vision may see fragmented images, or their vision may be distorted where objects and bright lights appear to jump about. They may find it easier to focus on one spot of detail rather than take in the whole scene as this could be too overwhelming especially if it is distorted, too bright and fragmented. the child may not want to look directly and people and may often find it difficult to have eye contact. They may avoid certain rooms due to the lighting, wall colour, or objects in the room as it may heighten their sensitivity to a very uncomfortable level. The resulting behaviour often appears unrelated to anything obvious within the environment and this can result in parents and carers remaining confused and unsure how to help their child. This is an example of one of the senses, but there is often a combination of processing difficulties involving two or more senses.
There is no cure for autism, however, there are several treatment and management approaches that can help to make a difference to the child's life. These range from simply adjusting the child's diet to a combination of therapies, behaviour interventions and self help tools. The approach taken will depend on the individual and their level of needs. Before deciding on any approach it is essential to gain sufficient knowledge of its aims. The approach needs to be positive and motivating, whilst building on the child's strengths. It should enable the child to reach their full potential for a better quality of life.