Autism is a condition where the brain develops in an atypical way. This impacts how a person communicates with others, as well as affects their behavior in unique ways. Though most people know and refer to the condition as simply "autism," professionals now use the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As a spectrum condition, autism can vary dramatically from person to person, triggering a wide range of potential symptoms.
ASD is an umbrella term covering many now-defunct diagnoses, including conditions like Asperger's syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder. Though many people continue to use these terms, doing so is technically inaccurate.
When looking at the raw numbers, autism diagnosis rates have increased dramatically in recent years. However, this doesn't mean that autism is more common than it used to be. Instead, the rates are higher because we now have a better understanding of the condition and have improved the diagnostic process.
Ultimately, autism is a complex condition that can affect each person in diverse ways. Understanding autism is important, not only to make it easier for those with the condition to interact with the world but also to understand various other similar conditions. For example, there are many links between ADHD and autism. Many people refer to these conditions using the term "neurodivergent" and referring to individuals without the same issues as "neurotypical."
Autism typically affects people early in childhood, with most people developing symptoms within the first year. The spectrum nature of autism means that many adults with autism never received a diagnosis as children since their symptoms weren't obvious. Living with autism can be difficult for some people. Often, autistic individuals struggle to interact with others due to their brains not processing social cues the same way other people do. They can also have learning or language disabilities that impact their lives, making certain day-to-day activities difficult. Professionals sometimes assign a "level" from one to three, along with their diagnosis. This refers to the level of care a person likely needs in daily life, with one being the least amount of help and three being the most.
As experts uncovered more about autism, they realized that it is an extremely diverse condition that defies simple categories. Some people struggle to speak to others, finding themselves unable to understand figurative language or look people in the eyes. Others may be able to communicate well, even understanding ethereal ideas like sarcasm. Similarly, individuals may lack the ability to express—or even describe—their emotions, while some have no trouble voicing how they feel. The condition only becomes more complex when discussing issues like ADHD, which often exist alongside autism. Recognizing the nuances and intricacies of the spectrum allows for a better understanding of those with the condition, as well as their strengths and challenges.
Autism typically starts to present within the first two years of life. A child on the spectrum may have delayed language or speech skills, babbling less frequently and with fewer unique sounds. Other early signs include repetitive movements, ignoring others when spoken to, and being unable to adapt to changes in routines. Toddlers with autism may not participate in pretend play or show limited interest in most toys. If they do play, they may line toys up in specific orders or organize them in certain categories.
Because autism is so variable, it is difficult to diagnose. To compensate for this, the process involves a series of steps, ranging from behavioral observations to standardized assessments. Often, symptoms of conditions like ADHD, depression, and anxiety overlap with those of autism, further complicating the diagnostic process. This difficulty, lack of understanding of autism, and the potential subtlety of symptoms often lead to late recognition in adults. Diagnosing autism in adults can be even more difficult as they have likely developed a range of skills and techniques that allow them to manage their conditions, masking symptoms.
Everyone with autism will have different challenges in their daily lives, though there are often overlapping experiences. Social interactions are a core part of school and employment, presenting major hurdles for autistic people. Sensory problems, such as light and noise sensitivity, are common symptoms of autism and can also make life quite difficult. Comorbid issues like ADHD affect focus and learning, potentially setting a person back in school and work. Navigating these challenges requires understanding from those around the affected individual, as well as various individualized coping methods.
Life as an adult with autism, ADHD, or another form of neurodivergence may be challenging. Many people go their entire lives without realizing why they feel different or why they struggle to incorporate into everyday life, while others find it easy. Especially because our understanding of autism was so poor for so long, many adults who have the condition didn't receive the care they needed as children. This may have made school extremely difficult, preventing them from attaining the education that modern considerations would allow. Individuals often have to create their own management techniques for autism symptoms like texture issues, sensory overload, or social communication differences. Depression and anxiety are often present in adults with autism because they have faced certain adversities.
There is no "one size fits all" approach to educational approaches for autism because the condition is simply that complex. Teaching someone who has autism requires an understanding that they think, behave, and interact in a completely different way. Some children may work best in a low-light environment, so turning off classroom lights can be extremely beneficial. Others may need headphones to mute loud noises. When historic terms were in use, like Asperger's, those children usually had fewer problems socializing with others. However, classic autism includes social, language, and learning difficulties. Group projects, presenting work in front of others, and reading aloud in class could prove extremely difficult for someone with autism.
One of the hallmark autism symptoms is struggling to communicate with the average person. Primarily, aspects of conversation like sarcasm and figurative language are often difficult to process. Additionally, many individuals on the spectrum have trouble with body language and other nonverbal cues. As they respond, they may also use body language, gestures, speaking pitches, or tones that would seem inappropriate to the average person. On occasion, a person with autism may go completely nonverbal, becoming unable to speak. Alternatively, especially in the case of people who fall under the old diagnosis of Asperger's, they can be extremely talkative and verbose, using long phrases and complex words.
In general, the basic rules for communicating with someone who has autism are simple. Keep things direct and clear, avoid flowery language, and don't take offense if they make a social faux pas.
Maintaining a relationship with someone who has autism is a unique experience, but it can be demanding for both individuals. Many experts advise neurodivergent people and those close to them to undergo social skills training or therapy. This training involves going through different communication methods, identifying the various ways each person interacts with others, and building bridges for better communication.
Autism is not a curable condition, and many people working in autism advocacy state that finding one is not an appropriate goal. However, beyond social skills training, there are a variety of therapies that can help a person with autism—especially someone with co-occurring ADHD—manage their symptoms and better integrate into neurotypical society. Usually, these therapies aim for a general approach to manage the most common symptoms, or they focus on a specific area of treatment. Some of the most widely used include occupational therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and applied behavior analysis. Experts agree that the most success occurs when catering each treatment to the individual.
Historically, we have failed to understand autism. Even now, as research advances, we still have much to learn about the condition. This has allowed numerous autism myths to appear and even persist for decades after debunking. Some of the most common include a variation of the idea that vaccines cause autism. Experts have proven this false in several different ways, and many of the researchers behind the theory have rebuked it. Other false myths include autism making people violent, that people with autism look a certain way, or that the condition simply isn't real.
Depending on the level of care that a person requires, autism can make a major impact on families. This is especially true in cases where the individual has multiple coexisting problems, like ADHD or depression. However, a supportive, understanding family is one of the best factors for ensuring a high quality of life for someone on the spectrum. Keep in mind that there will likely be communication difficulties and breakdowns. Sometimes, a person with autism will have an episode where they become more aggressive or have a massive emotional outburst. It can be hugely beneficial to have support structures like therapists, autism support groups, and other societal programs—both to help the family and the individual.
Autism often creates atypical challenges in the workplace—though it can also benefit certain career fields. An individual may struggle to focus on specific tasks or take longer to learn new skills. If instructions are not clear enough, they may perform tasks incorrectly. Changes in procedure or management can feel insurmountable to neurodivergent people. Then, there are the interpersonal problems that business relationships can introduce.
Furthermore, many neurodivergent people "mask" in public spaces, basically meaning they mimic neurotypical people or adopt certain techniques to manage their symptoms. This can be immensely draining and lead to serious burnout and fatigue.
However, if a job has a set routine that doesn't change and allows for accommodations, a person with autism can excel. For example, maybe they struggle with ongoing social contact but are immensely skilled at finding errors while programming. It may be more effective for that workplace to allow the person to work in a separate office or from home, allowing them to focus on the tasks they do well.
Along with our advancements in understanding autism, various technological improvements now exist to support individuals with the condition. Some basic forms of this include things like weighted vests or sensor balls that provide comfort and alleviate the need for stimming. Others include digital technology like text-to-speech devices that allow nonverbal people to communicate better or even mind-mapping programs that help visual learners think, write, and speak.
Perhaps the biggest change for neurodivergence in the modern era is the push for advocacy and awareness. Many groups focus on educating neurotypical people with those on the spectrum. Online groups provide a space for autistic people to express themselves safely and find others with shared experiences. Plus, this outreach has encouraged many people who have gone their whole lives without a diagnosis to seek evaluation, answering a question they might not have realized they had. All of this works together to make daily life with autism easier.
Joselyn wasn’t too keen on multiple choice in high school. She vividly remembers the first biology exam she passed by only the skin of her teeth, which dragged her overall average down into the embarrassingly low 90s (she doesn’t want to talk about it). After swearing off any high school or university courses that required multiple choice tests, Joselyn managed to get an English degree by sweet-talking her professors into offering only essay-style exams. Needless to say, this did not exactly endear her to her peers. This rocky start smoothed out in time, though, and after tumbling down a black quiz hole one day while putting off job hunting, Joselyn realized her hatred of all things a-b-or-c had faded and she actually enjoyed dreaming up new ideas for questions and dangerously correct-sounding answers. You won’t find her quizzes an easy ride, but Joselyn just wants to make sure you’re really testing your knowledge.
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