What is Autism: An In-Depth Exploration

In recent years, autism has become the focus of many discussions across various fields of interest. Even in the past two decades, research has expanded and provided a far greater understanding of the condition. However, much remains unknown.

Autism is now known medically as autism spectrum disorder. This new term also covers now-outdated diagnoses, like Asperger's syndrome. Experts chose to change the diagnosis to better describe the variations in the condition. Realizing that autism is a spectrum allows for better support for those with the condition, as well as enabling more accurate research into its causes, mechanisms, symptoms, and management.

Autism spectrum disorder affects everyone in different ways, though some specific symptoms manifest in most people. Difficulties with social interactions struggles to understand nonverbal communication, and the need to perform certain repetitive behaviors all appear regularly. However, they differ in severity, when they start, and whether other issues are also present.

Few topics are as complex and variable as autism. Not only is it difficult to research, but we are always discovering more about it. To understand autism, it's best to take a deep dive into each of its many aspects and break them down.

Autism: a basic definition

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition that manifests in a variety of ways, affecting communication, behavior, and social interaction. The spectrum covers a wide range of symptoms and issues and affects each person differently. Experts consider autism a "developmental disorder" because symptoms usually appear in the first couple years of life and affect development. Anyone can have autism, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or economic background.

Fake Dictionary, Dictionary definition of the word autism.

The autism spectrum: explaining the range

As a spectrum disorder, autism symptoms can manifest with huge variations in type and severity. Doctors will often add a "level" to their diagnoses, referring to the level of care a person on the spectrum requires. A person at level one requires little daily assistance, while a level three needs significant help. Generally, a diagnosis of level three involves some form of learning or language disability that makes day-to-day activities difficult. However, it could also point to severe sensory issues or physical problems, as well. Even people at level one often need accommodations and help on occasion, but the degree of that help is lower.

Wooden blocks with words 'ASD, autism spectrum disorder'.

Key characteristics of autism

When describing autism, a few key characteristics stand out as particularly distinctive. As children, many people with autism develop language skills far more slowly than their peers. Difficulty socializing is also a hallmark symptom of someone on the spectrum. The specific challenges vary between individuals but can include trouble making eye contact, inability to understand sarcasm or figurative language, and missing nonverbal cues. Many autistic people experience various sensory issues, ranging from being unable to touch certain textures to becoming hypersensitive to light or sounds. To combat this or other stressors, those on the spectrum may perform repetitive or forced actions—this is referred to as "stimming."

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) infographic presentation template with icons has 5 steps

How autism is diagnosed

The diagnostic process for autism can be complex and lengthy. Experts will often begin with behavioral observations to find any of the characteristic behaviors consistent with autism. They may also use standardized assessments to find language, social, or intelligence issues. Medical histories and family input are also important for an accurate diagnosis. Diagnosing the condition outside of childhood can be quite difficult because the symptoms are either more subtle or the individual has learned skills to manage their condition, masking it during the process.

Rear view of female psychologist helping young family with a kid to solve child development problems.

Theories of autism: understanding different perspectives

Though recent research efforts have greatly improved our understanding of autism, much remains unknown. This has encouraged many people to create theories about its origins, symptoms, and scope. Some prominent theories include:

  • Autism is underdiagnosed in females
  • Genetics are the main cause, but environmental factors play a role
  • Autism stems from hyper-active neurobiology
  • Autism is a form of human evolution

Theory word on card index paper

Autism through the ages: childhood to adulthood

Autism symptoms usually begin in the first two years, often involving slow speech and language development. As someone on the spectrum ages, they may not participate in pretend play. Social problems become more clear in childhood as they enter daycares, schools, and similar facilities. Many people start to develop specific interests, sometimes reaching a level of hyperfixation. It's also common for children with autism to be picky eaters due to certain texture or flavor sensitivities. Depending on their symptoms, individuals may excel in school or perform extremely poorly without certain accommodations. The same is true once they enter the workforce.

Woman in different age. From child to old person. Teenager, adult and baby generation. Aging process.

Transitioning to adulthood with autism

The concerns that parents often have about their children entering adulthood are often magnified when the child has a condition like autism. During this period, the individual's whole support structure changes, which can be stressful and distressing. Allowing someone on the spectrum to remain at home can provide stability and relief, limiting the more negative symptoms of their condition. Many people are capable of pursuing higher education. Others might benefit more from taking a break from school or directly entering the workforce. It all depends on their symptoms and what support structures are in place.

father and son playing games on tablets

Communication in autism: challenges and strengths

In many ways, communication lies at the heart of autism. The condition can pose many challenges when it comes to communicating, but some people also possess unique strengths. Individuals with autism may not be able to use speech or language at all, with many possessing limited speaking skills. However, others may have rich vocabularies and varied interests that they enjoy discussing at length. Issues with the meaning and rhythm of words are also typical, as are difficulties with vocal tones. Despite this, it is somewhat common for people on the spectrum to learn and observe from others, adopting and utilizing more standard communication skills.  

Professional therapist or psychologist showing sad unhappy emoticon card while talking to little child about expressing negative emotions during interview appointment in office

Sensory processing in autism

Many studies have shown that those on the spectrum tend to have unique sensory processing abilities. In some cases, this involves "numbed" sensations like being unable to feel changes in temperature or needing to eat extremely spicy foods. In others, autistic individuals may show advanced observational abilities and be capable of noticing even minor patterns or changes in the environment. However, those on the spectrum are prone to sensory overload. For example, some people find that wearing thick socks causes them to become hyper-aware of that texture, making things like bright lights almost unbearable because there are too many sensory inputs.

A little kid afraid of loud noise, sensitive to sound, covering ears. Autism and bad sensory processing.

Autism and learning: educational strategies

Autism advocacy groups are fighting hard to improve educational opportunities for those on the spectrum. This often involves guiding educators on more effective ways of accommodating the diverse learning styles of autistic people. Sensory-friendly environments that provide students with a dim, quiet place to learn are very effective. Personalized learning plans built for visual learners can also help. Maximizing the potential for academic success requires a willingness to adapt to any kind of unique need.

Boy with autism learn weather using cards, teacher hold hands and point to correct one

Social skills and autism: building relationships

With autism often affecting social skills, building relationships can take a significant amount of effort. Many people on the spectrum face social isolation. However, interventions like social skills training can help autistic people learn the skills they need to interact with others, as well as the reverse. Miscommunications are common in interactions between the average person and those on the spectrum, but it's important to not let these inhibit future socialization.

Lonely sad african-american schoolgirl crying while all her classmates ignoring her

Therapeutic approaches for autism

Beyond social skills training, a variety of therapies can help autistic people integrate into non-autistic society. Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on overcoming negative self-talk and combating problems like depression and anxiety. Applied behavior analysis focuses on imparting skills for a variety of fields, including academic, learning, communication, hygiene, grooming, and social skills. Essentially, it is an extremely personalized therapy that helps those with autism with any problem they face.

Little girl at speech therapist office proper articulation therapy

The role of technology in supporting autistic individuals

Various new technologies have allowed for massive advancements in supporting autistic people across many areas of focus. Tablet-like devices focus on pattern formation, allowing visual learners to tackle topics they may struggle with when using other teaching methods. Studies also show that online learning environments help those with autism to learn in a safe, comfortable place. Social robots and language learning artificial intelligence programs allow them to practice social skills without the fear of judgment, as well.

2 - 3 years old toddler boy using tablet pc playing game, watching a video from tablet pc.

Autism in the media: representation and reality

As with many topics, media representation plays a major role in shaping the public perception of autism. Unfortunately, portrayals of autism in the media are often inaccurate or outright damaging. Many characters who are "autistic coded" show signs more consistent with conditions like Down Syndrome rather than autism. Others may be antisocial geniuses who are antagonistic and rude. Though these portrayals may be accurate in some instances, they do not cover the extremely diverse nature of autism. Autism advocates fight for more accurate portrayals to help limit misconceptions.

Online news in mobile phone. Close up of smartphone screen. Man reading articles in application.

The importance of community support

Having a strong support structure is the best thing for a person with autism, regardless of the level of care they require. Building an inclusive environment that understands that autism is a condition that requires accommodation can dramatically improve a person's quality of life. Championing inclusivity and debunking misconceptions allow people on the spectrum to provide the world with their unique perspectives and experiences.

Multiracial happy young people stacking hands-Group of diverse friends having fun
Peg, Heywise Staff

Article WriterPeg, Heywise Staff

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