What is autism?

Autism is a permanent developmental disability which affects more than half a million people in the UK. But if you add families and friends to that then you are looking at a figure of at least 2 million people.

(Source: NHS Choices/LiveWell/Autism)

The effects of autism

Someone with autism is overwhelmed by the world around them. They find it unsettling, frightening and incomprehensible and struggle to make sense of the many complexities that we all have to deal with.

This manifests itself in problems with social communication, interaction and imagination. They find it difficult to deal with the subtle nuances and meanings of everyday communication or understanding when someone is using sarcasm, irony or humour in their speech.

Empathy is another problem as is imagining what other people are thinking and doing outside of their own personal experiences. This affects their ability to form relationships with others and often leads to social isolation.

But what is important to understand as a parent of a child with autism or an adult who has been diagnosed with this disorder is that it is not a form of mental illness. There are some people with autism who also have a mental illness but there are many who do not.

Three areas of difficulty for autistic people

There are three aspects of autism which pose a particular problem for sufferers. These include:

  • Problem with social interaction
  • Problem with social communication
  • Problem with social imagination

The technical name for this is the ’triad of impairments’

The extent of these difficulties varies from person to another. These common aspects of autism are also referred to in our autism spectrum disorders section.

Spectrum disorder

Autism is classed as a ’spectrum disorder’which means that their symptoms can range from mild through to severe. It all depends upon where they fit on the autism spectrum.

This is a wide ranging spectrum which includes classic autism through to Asperger’s syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.

These and other similar conditions are discussed in more detail in our Autism Spectrum Disorders section.

Basically, these spectrum disorders are a group of autism-like conditions which affects sufferers in different ways. They may experience the same problems such as communication with others but to a different extent.

Issues related to autism

We have mentioned that autism affects people in different ways. What this means is that some people will find it easier to manage than others. Some people will require minimal support whereas others will need lifelong support.

A person with a mild form of autism will be able to lead a relatively independent lifestyle with a few adjustments. But someone with a severe form of autism which has resulted in severe learning difficulties will need specialist care and support.

No-one can underestimate the effect this has on the families of the sufferers.

For a parent, it can be distressing to be told that your child is autistic, especially if they have severe symptoms of this disorder. This often means that they will require help and support for the rest of their life and will be unable to function as an independent adult.

It can be a body blow to an adult who has suspected that there is something different about them or has found it difficult to socially interact with other people.

But whilst there is no cure there is plenty of support, advice and techniques (interventions) which can help them to lead a relatively normal life.

One consolation is that many autistic people have a talent in a particular area such as art, music or mathematics. If they can be encouraged to develop this talent and are supported whilst doing so then it can lead to a fulfilling life.

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