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***Post written by Scott McGuire***
Autism is one of the most complicated disorders to understand. It is often called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because the symptoms are on a spectrum ranging from very disabling to having very little effect on a person’s daily life. Rarely do two people with Autism look exactly alike. All of us have differing communication skills, social skills, and restrictive interests to some degree, but in people with Autism, their differences in these areas are outside the “normal” range and cause problems with their daily living.
Autism is a genetic disorder that has three major components; impaired communication (verbal and/or nonverbal), impaired social interactions, and repetitive/stereotyped behavior, interests, and/or activities. Since it is genetic, the signs can sometimes be seen very early in childhood. They become more noticeable as the social and communication demands increase and may diminish as the person develops better coping skills. To get an Autism diagnosis a person must exhibit behaviors in all three areas to some degree. (For example, a very shy person can have social and communication problems but they lack the restrictive interest area, or a person with motor tics may also have communication problems but has good social interaction skills.) A combination of observations, interviews, and behavior rating scales help confirm the diagnosis.
The treatment for Autism is to help the person develop skills so they can better function in society. Often they need direct communication and social skill instructions; they often have difficulty generalizing the skills they learn to new settings and situations. Since social skills are impaired, they often seem self-centered and have difficulty understanding all of the social rules we follow and instinctively understand. For example, a typical kid understands social rules such as why they should be doing what their teacher or parent asks them to do even if they don’t want to, or sharing, or asking somebody how they are doing, and when not to shout/swear/ or make odd noises in a quiet room, whereas an Autistic kid may need to be taught those social behaviors.
There is not a cure, however many people can make enough progress where they can lead a normal life with little support, others may need to be hospitalized and receive 24/7/365 care. The repetitive behaviors can range from stereotyped hand flapping or eye blinking, strict insistence on having a routine, or having an intense specific interest area such as being an expert in dinosaurs as a child; being able to tell someone everything about their special interest and not wanting to talk about much else.
They often have strength areas such as having very good visual or auditory memory, able to memorize patterns, an ability to stay focused on boring repetitive tasks, detail oriented, or understanding concrete concepts. These strengths can help guide intervention methods and career planning.