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What is Autism?

Autism is classed as a Pervasive Developmental Disorder. It is a lifelong developmental disability that is characterised by a 'triad of impairments' which affects the way in which autistic individuals make sense of the world around them.

The exact cause of Autism has not been fully established, although research has suggested a strong genetic link. However, the sites of relevant genes are yet to be identified. Autism has been reported to be linked to a variety of conditions which affect brain development of the child, which occur before, during or after birth. Conditions include maternal rubella, lack of oxygen during birth, and complications of illnesses such as measles and whooping cough.

It is classed as a spectrum disorder, which means that whilst individuals with Autism will share common difficulties, the extent to which their condition affects them will vary amongst individuals. Some individuals with Autism are unable to communicate at all, whilst others are higher functioning, who are articulate but are socially awkward, being viewed as "odd" by others. The triad of impairments normally emerge in the first 2-3 years of a child's life.

The triad of impairments consist of:

  • Problems with social interaction
  • Difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Lack of imaginative thought and creative play

Problems with Social Interaction include:

  • Unaware of what is socially appropriate
  • Difficulty socialising with others
  • Chatting and small talk is difficult
  • Appearing uninterested in others
  • Difficulty making friends

Difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication includes:

  • Verbal communication skills varies greatly amongst individuals with autism - some may be able to speak fluently, whilst others are unable to speak at all.
  • Difficulty understanding body language, gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice.
  • Due to difficulty judging or understanding others reactions, they may appear insensitive or rude.
  • Taking comments literally, therefore misunderstanding jokes or metaphors.

Lack of imaginative thought and creative play problems include:

  • No enjoyment through role play games
  • Difficulty understanding abstract ideas
  • Obsessions with interests, objects or routines (repetitive behaviour). This may lead to further difficulty when forming social relationships

Individuals with Autism may also experience over or under sensitivity to touch, taste, sound, smell, light or colours. Seizures are also a common problem, with rates reported as affecting 15-30% of autistic individuals. Around 75% of people with Autism will have accompanying learning difficulties.

Often a child with Autism will appear unaffected as a baby, where they reach the normal developmental milestones, including speech. As they become toddlers, they may fail to develop normal social behaviour, and sometimes speech may be lost.

The typical difficulties experienced as the child grows include:

  • Repetitive behaviours
  • Obsessions with objects or set routines
  • Poor co-ordination
  • Problems with fine motor control
  • Resistance to routine changes
  • Very few friends, with a tendency to play alone
  • Lack of imaginative play
  • Decrease in eye contact
  • Absence of normal facial expressions

It has also been reported that children with autism, are sometimes found to have an exceptional skill, for example an aptitude for drawing, mathematics or playing an instrument.

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