Many people are born with conditions that affect how their brains develop, severely changing how they interact with the world. Because their brains are neurologically different from the average person, many individuals within these communities use the term "neurodivergent" to describe themselves—with "neurotypical" describing everyone without these conditions.
Autism is one of the many neurodivergent conditions and one of the most misunderstood. Modern experts now refer to autism as
and consider conditions like Asperger's syndrome to fall under this new diagnosis. This change occurred because autism symptoms vary widely among individuals, not only in terms of type but also in severity and age of development.
From challenges in social communications to sensory sensitivities, autism symptoms can affect many different aspects of a person's life. Experts agree that an educated, supportive community is a major factor in a good quality of life for people on the spectrum. Understanding autism symptoms is a necessary part of improving support for people with the condition and fostering empathy for those struggling with their symptoms.
Because autism spectrum disorder is a developmental condition, symptoms appear early in life—usually within the first two years. Most infants will babble and make other noises, but children with autism may not babble at all. If they do, they may repeat the same sounds, or their "speech" patterns may be overly slow or fast. As they age, they may use repetitive and rigid language or have an extremely diverse vocabulary, but only when discussing a specific topic. Their nonverbal communication skills, such as performing or reading body language, also commonly fall behind. Young children on the spectrum may not participate in pretend play or imagination games and avoid fictional stories.
When it comes to easily recognizable symptoms of autism, the changes in sensory perception are one of the most prevalent. Experts have found that individuals on the spectrum tend to have atypical senses. Some have "muted" abilities to feel or taste. A tell-tale sign of this is eating excessively spicy food just to taste a meal. Many others, however, have extreme sensory sensitivities to textures, lights, and sounds. Bright lights and loud noises can irritate neurodivergent people to the point of exhaustion or frustration. Certain clothing and food textures are also often overwhelming. This is why many people who have autism will wear specific styles of clothing and eat only "safe" meals that they are comfortable with.
Another one of the most distinctive symptoms of autism, communication challenges make social interactions a nightmare for many individuals on the spectrum. Being unable to make eye contact is one of the more classic manifestations of this, but there are many others. Some individuals struggle with figurative language and metaphor. Others cannot read or reproduce body language, facial emoting, and other nonverbal cues. A great number of those with autism also have unique speech patterns, like talking with a flat affect or speaking at an atypical speed or rhythm.
Generally, those on the spectrum have certain behaviors that provide comfort and stability. It is extremely typical for them to create routines and stick to them rigidly, becoming deeply upset whenever something breaks that routine. Individuals may also possess repetitive behaviors. Echolalia, one such behavior, involves repeating words and phrases. Others may perform "stimming" actions like flapping their hands, shuffling their feet while standing in place, or playing with an object.
With the many communication differences between neurodivergent and neurotypical people, social interactions between the two can be challenging. It requires both patience and understanding from both parties. People with autism have completely different methods of thinking and understanding than neurotypical people do, meaning there are bound to be misunderstandings. Avoiding flowery language, metaphors, and sarcasm will make social interactions far easier. Additionally, neurotypical people shouldn't be upset if a person on the spectrum says something curtly or that is a bit too direct. That is simply how their brains are processing and delivering information and it is probably not meant to be offensive.
Some of the prevailing myths concerning autism are that the condition makes people cold, emotionless, or extremely aggressive. More and more studies are proving these ideas largely false. While some individuals may be prone to apathy and a lack of emotion, this appears to be the minority. Many people on the spectrum struggle to express themselves—or are outright unable to describe how they feel—but can still feel emotions just as strongly as everyone else. Researchers believe that what may look like self-involvement or apathy from the outside is simply a core difference in thought and emotional processing.
As a spectrum disorder, people with autism can have wildly different cognitive abilities. Some people on the spectrum experience severe learning disabilities that hinder their cognitive functions and cause them to need more assistance with day-to-day activities. On the other hand, some autistic people develop unique skills or learn certain topics at a much faster rate than neurotypical people often do. In certain instances, a person can be extremely knowledgeable and skilled in one area but be unable to improve their knowledge in others.
Many people mistakenly believe that people with autism often have physical indicators of their condition, such as an "autistic appearance." This is a myth, and there are no such markers. As our understanding of the condition grows, experts recognize very few physical symptoms of autism. Many people on the spectrum participate in self-harm, such as skin-picking or hand-biting, so the injuries these actions leave behind could be indicators of the condition. Some experts have found that a certain population of autistic people have poor motor abilities—meaning they are less agile and more clumsy than others—or participate in rhythmic movements. In these individuals, traits like poor muscle tone and toe walking are more common.
One of the factors that makes diagnosing autism so difficult is its interaction with other conditions. Many different issues occur comorbidly with autism, and their symptoms often interact and blend together. Several anxiety disorders co-occur with autism spectrum disorder, with rates as high as 84%. Epilepsy is also a common condition that appears in people with autism. Beyond these, issues like ADHD regularly affect people on the spectrum to the degree that testing for one often uncovers the other.
Over time, especially during adolescence, the abilities and needs of autistic people can change and evolve. Some may suddenly improve cognitively, adapting and learning much more quickly. Others may seem to learn more slowly as they age, falling behind their peers. Many studies have found that intervention therapies early in life can set up people on the spectrum for more success in the future. It can lead to improved vocabulary and speaking skills, as well as fewer symptoms from co-occurring issues like depression or anxiety.
Autism really only entered the public eye in the last decade or so as research and awareness improved. Historically, much remained unknown about the condition, and it—along with the now-outdated diagnoses of conditions like Asperger's—was severely underdiagnosed. As a result, many people make it to adulthood without a diagnosis. While many people in these scenarios describe feeling "weird" or like they didn't belong as children, they often do not suspect autism as the cause. Diagnosis as an adult is possible, but it can be tricky as many people learn management techniques that suppress many of their symptoms.
Neurodivergent conditions like autism are often the subject of myths, misinformation, and misconceptions. Some of this stands from now debunked theories, while others aren't based in reality at all. Autism doesn't make people more aggressive; not everyone on the spectrum needs advanced care, there is no "autistic appearance," and not everyone with autism has the same symptoms.
With a condition that is as variable as autism spectrum disorder, it can be hard to know when to seek professional help. Ultimately, the answer is whenever it's necessary. Many people on the spectrum go their whole lives without needing or desiring outside help. However, many more benefit from regular visits with counselors, physical therapists, trainers, and other medical professionals. If symptoms from co-occurring conditions flare up, seek help with managing them. Should certain symptoms of autism become too much to handle, like sensory sensitivities, a variety of autism experts have developed techniques that can help individuals avoid sensory overload.
Should someone with autism need coping strategies, there are a few that are quite simple to perform and incorporate into daily life. Many neurodivergent people tend to hyperfocus on tasks, skipping meals and missing out on leisure time. Adjustments to daily routines, such as including plenty of recreation time, can help avoid burnout and depression symptoms. Additionally, experts advise people on the spectrum to seek out emotional support. Because of the difficulty of communication and expressing emotions, many neurodivergent people do not receive the support they need. Support groups, friends, and family are all great sources of emotional affirmation.
Caring for and supporting someone on the spectrum can be a challenge. Depending on symptom severity, helping people with autism can look very different in each case. One general rule is to not take things personally. If a person has a sensory sensitivity and dislikes being touched, this isn't a reflection of you. If they say something too direct and it seems rude, that probably wasn't the intention. Beyond this, remember to keep certain accommodations in mind. You may avoid meet-ups and hangouts in noisy, busy places to help with sensory issues. When eating out, consider if the individual has any food texture concerns or preferences. Ultimately, everyone on the spectrum is just a person; care for them as you would any other human being.
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