What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is an umbrella term used to describe a group of developmental disorders relating to differences in the brain. It is not yet fully understood what  causes these differences, although some may result from a known genetic condition. The condition affects how a person thinks, feels and interacts with the world.  ‘Neurodiverse’ is another way to describe people with autism as opposed to ‘Neurotypical’, which is often used to describe people who are not on the Autistic Spectrum.

People with ASD each have their own individual challenges, these can vary widely and mean that some individuals may need lots of support to cope adequately with daily life, while others can function totally independently. No two autistic people are the same, however there are some attributes that are common among many autistic people.

What are some of the characteristics of autism?

Obsessive Interests

Some people with ASD can have an intense fascination with certain things, these could be abstract interests such as stories, music, numbers or concrete objects such as books, cars or any other physical object. These are all very individual interests but can sometimes result in a life-long fascination and intense knowledge about a certain subject.

Some obsessive behaviour can include strict routines, for example, lining things up in a particular order or repetitive daily patterns.  Deviation from these routines can potentially cause cause great distress.

Discomfort with social interaction

Autistic individuals may have difficulties developing social skills, they may use limited verbal language and struggle to interact emotionally with others. They can also find it difficult to use or understand non-verbal communication. Children may have subtle problems such as looking down or not making eye contact during conversations. Adults may struggle to communicate appropriately and display a lack of empathy for others. For example, they may display a contradictory reaction such as inappropriate facial expressions.

Difficulty with rules

Some autistic children or adults may struggle with following rules and guidelines. Experts believe this can be caused by the intense focus or passion that is common among people with autism. As they can find comfort in following a routine, experiencing a sudden change of routine, or schedule, can cause anxiety and mood swings. In some cases, those without autism or awareness can misinterpret this attribute and liken it to stubbornness.

Sensory problems

Some people with ASD may have difficulties with sensory overload. For example, children may close their eyes when faced with certain colours or noise, or display repetitive behaviour such as leg tapping, as a way of calming themselves. The underlying principle is that often autism is linked to  hypersensitivity,  therefore an excess of  sensory stimulation may force them to seek external outputs as a means of self-regulation. For example, some people with ASD may find it easier to wear headphones while trying to study to block out other distractions.


How to communicate effectively with autistic people

Address the person just as you would anyone else

People with autism are intelligent individuals, address them like you would any other adult or however they would prefer to be addressed.

Say what you mean

It is advisable to keep your statements less vague, more transparent and literal. That way, you limit the chances of miscommunication.

Listen carefully

Taking time to listen carefully to what the person is saying, this can help show that you do care and are supportive of them.

Maintain calmness

It’s bad practice to exhibit anxiety and worries while addressing an autistic person. Try to demonstrate a calm attitude as it gives room for more conversation.

Language to use when talking about someone with Autism

This is a heavily debated topic in the ASD community.  With some disabilities such as physical disabilities it is generally best practice to use person first language.  For example you would say “person in a wheelchair” rather than a “wheelchair person”.  This is because rather than defining people primarily by their disability, people-first language emphasises the individuality, equality and dignity of people with disabilities.  However many people with Autism don’t see autism as a “disability” and rightly so. Therefore it can actually be empowering to use the phrase autistic person rather than person with autism.  If dealing with someone personally it is always best to respect their own preference. Further reading on this.


Autistic people throughout history

Because it is hard to diagnose anyone retrospectively, all the people listed below may not have been on the Autistic Spectrum.  However,  Prof Michael Fitzgerald of Dublin’s Trinity College , who is an acclaimed Psychologist specialising in ASD believes that the following people all had strong autistic traits.

Charles Darwin

With Darwin’s intense focus, which led to the discovery of evolution. Darwin achieved a nobel prize for his groundbreaking discovery, which changed the face of scientific evolution.

Vincent Van Gogh

Among the world’s greatest painters.

Albert Einstein

His common attributes included intense focus, obsession with light beams, inflexibility with authority and rules, being anti-social. Despite all these, Einstein is remembered for his uncanny ability to solve puzzles and incredible humour.

Useful Links

National Autistic Society

Autism Society

The NHS page for autism

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