This week is autism awareness week, so we thought we would help spread awareness too.
The past year with the pandemic has been extra difficult for many people with autism and their families. Their usual services have been closed and many people have been left isolated. The ever-changing guidelines and restrictions can be confusing. So this week is particularly important this year.
Here is our quick guide to what autism is and how to get some support.
What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum.
Here is a great explainer video from the National Autistic Society.
Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways. Like all people, autistic people have their own strengths and weaknesses. Below is a list of difficulties autistic people may share, including the two key difficulties required for a diagnosis.
Social Communication and Social Interaction Challenges
People with autism have difficulties with interpreting language. This can involve problems with both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. Some autistic people are unable to speak or have limited speech while other autistic people have very good language skills but struggle to understand nuances in speech like sarcasm. They may also take things literally, have difficulty with abstract ideas, need extra time to process information or repeat what others say to them.
Autistic people may have difficulty reading other people. This can be especially difficult when trying to read emotions and intentions. As a result, they may appear insensitive, need time away from people, appear to behave in a socially inappropriate way or find it difficult to form friendships.
Repetitive and Restrictive Behaviours
The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people. This is why they often prefer to have routines so that they know what is going to happen. They may want to travel the same way to and from school or work, wear the same clothes or eat exactly the same food for meals.
Autistic people may also repeat movements such as hand flapping, rocking or the repetitive use of an object such as twirling a pen or opening and closing a door. Autistic people often engage in these behaviours to help calm themselves when they are stressed or anxious, but many autistic people do it because they find it enjoyable.
Change to routine can also be very distressing for autistic people and make them very anxious. It could be having to adjust to big events like Christmas or changing schools, facing uncertainty at work, or something simpler like a bus detour that can trigger their anxiety.
People with autism may experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. For example, they may find certain background sounds like music in a restaurant, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain.
Many avoid everyday situations because of their sensitivity issues. Schools, workplaces and shopping centres can be particularly overwhelming and cause sensory overload.
People may have intense and highly focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong. People with autism can become experts in their special interests and often like to share their knowledge. A stereotypical example is trains but that is one of many.
Like all people, autistic people gain huge amounts of pleasure from pursuing their interests and see them as fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness.
Being highly focused helps many do well academically and in the workplace but they can also become so engrossed in particular topics or activities that they neglect other aspects of their lives.
Anxiety is a real difficulty for many adults, particularly in social situations or when facing change. It can affect a person psychologically and physically and impact on the quality of their life.
It is very important that people with autism learn to recognise their triggers and find coping mechanisms to help reduce their anxiety. However, many autistic people have difficulty recognising and regulating their emotions.
Meltdowns and shutdowns
When everything becomes too much, a person with autism can go into meltdown or shutdown. These are very intense and exhausting experiences.
A meltdown happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioural control. This loss of control can be verbal (eg shouting, screaming, crying) or physical (eg kicking, lashing out, biting) or both. Meltdowns in children are often mistaken for temper tantrums and parents and their children often experience hurtful comments and judgmental stares from less understanding members of the public.
A shutdown appears less intense to the outside world but can be equally debilitating. Shutdowns are also a response to being overwhelmed, but may appear more passive – eg an autistic person going quiet or ‘switching off’.
Sources of help for people with autism
You can also enrol in our new mental health course which covers autism as one of the units.