What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition – a different way of thinking, processing and communicating as well as a difference in the way we process sensory input, learn and experience the world around us. Autistic brains have always been part of human diversity. Autism is not a learning disability, an intellectual disability, a mental health disorder, brain damage, a disease, a disorder, or something that needs to be cured or prevented and it’s not something that we grow out of. Anyone can be autistic – any gender, ethnicity, class, culture, religion or nationality.

Autism can be, and often is, extremely disabling but some of the biggest difficulties arise because the world is not set up in a way that accommodates or understands us. Despite autism still being medically defined as a series of ‘deficits’, autistic brains are also blessed with a myriad of unique skills, gifts and abilities. When our unique gifts, talents, abilities and needs are supported and accommodated, we can achieve our full potential, enjoy life, have fulfilling relationships and contribute to the world in meaningful ways.

Autistic traits & diagnosing autism

Autistic traits are the qualities and characteristics that make autistic brains different to non-autistic brains. Autism shares many traits with ADHD (and even some with other neurodivergent conditions) but there are also significant differences between the two. A high percentage of autistic people will also have ADHD and a considerable number of people with ADHD will also be autistic.

Autistic people are often perfectionists, having a preference for things to be well ordered and in their place. Many of us think in a visual way or have good pattern recognition. In addition, we are known to be methodical and analytical.

We are deep, outside the box thinkers. Many of us were early readers and like to research, often able to memorise and learn information that interests us, quickly and thoroughly and we can easily hunker down and deep dive into anything which interests us.

We prefer to question rather than simply accepting ‘fact’ just because we are told it is so. We like to understand the reasons behind rules and laws and when we do, we like others to follow them as eagerly as we do! We have a tendency to be precise, observant and detail orientated – good at spotting errors – but we also like to look at the larger picture, perhaps viewing it from different angles or through different filters.

Our creativity and intense passions lend themselves well to becoming artists, performers, writers, poets, musicians and song writers. Many of us are very happy to work on our own, in fact we often tend to prefer it. We will get on with what we have to do and complete our tasks without fuss, as long as we are given the environment to do so. We are known to be reliable and dependable, due to our love of rules, schedules and routines. In addition, we are likely to be open and honest, often known to ‘say it like it is’. As friends we are loyal, caring and kind. Many of us have naturally gravitated towards the caring professions, animal care and teaching.

Autistic people greatly value integrity and as some of the most loving, kind, warm-hearted, accepting and open-minded members of society and we hope that one day, these traits will be listed in diagnostic manuals, alongside our ‘deficits’.

The following is a brief description of the specific challenges that are part of the diagnostic criteria of autism:

Executive functioning challenges

Autistic people have challenges with certain mental management skills are which are responsible for organising, planning, prioritising and problem-solving, as well as decision making, motivation, self-regulation and inhibition. It is important to be aware that all executive function difficulties are intensified by stress, anxiety, tiredness, overwhelm, unexpected change, pressure, lack of sleep, pain, sensory sensitivities, hormonal fluctuations and illness.

Working memory 

The working memory is like a ‘holding area’ in the brain, where we can process any thoughts and information that are currently being worked on. Autistic working memories struggle to store and effectively manipulate and process those mental tasks, thoughts, and memories. This can affect both our verbal and non-verbal skills.

Flexible thinking 

Another challenge shared with ADHD is our struggle to begin a task, stop what we are doing or switch tasks, especially when in ‘hyper focus’ mode. We may also struggle to control emotions and inhibition of impulses.

Differences in social communication & social interaction

Differences in social communication and social interaction is one of the unique defining traits of autism. It is difficult for autistic people to navigate the social world of the non-autistic population.

We struggle with ‘reading’ people – accurately interpreting verbal and non-verbal language such as emotions, facial expressions, gestures or tone of voice. We may take things literally, miss subtle nuances or find sarcasm and metaphors difficult to understand. Some of us have great language skills yet struggle to understand sarcasm or tone of voice.

A very strong need for structure & routine

We become heavily reliant on our personal routines and daily rituals, suffering distress and anxiety when they cannot be followed. We hate new routines being imposed on us. We need to have things organised in a way that works for us and we may seem inflexible to alternatives. We may find calmness and order in lining objects up or sorting them.

Autistic people tend to hate unexpected change and unwanted surprises. We can sometimes have difficulty seeing things from other people’s points of view, seeming rigid or black and white in our thinking.

We might need to know exactly what is going to happen before we go anywhere, especially somewhere new and a day trip or holiday may need to be organised down to the fine detail. We can experience intense distress, in response to seemingly minor changes such as a traffic diversion, a bus or train delay, timetable changes, or taking a different route to school or work.

Restrictive or repetitive movements

The world is set up in a way that is not intuitive to autistic brains and there are so many unwritten rules that we are expected to follow but which are not natural to us. To cope with this discomfort and unpredictability, we have many strategies which include something called ‘stimming’.

Stimming is short for self-stimulating or self-soothing movements or vocalisations. These are natural human actions, movements or verbalisations and are under voluntary control. All humans stim at times, such as when we are bored, nervous or tense. For example, nail biting, bouncing knees, rocking on chairs or pacing when on the phone. Autistic people however, stim more often and our stims may be more obvious and observable, and we have an increased need to stim when we are anxious or in times of change – such as changing schools, moving house or family celebrations.

Some common stims include:

  • Repetitive movements such as rocking, spinning, pacing, walking, tapping, jumping or running.
  • Waving fingers in front of eyes, flapping hands or arms, walking on tiptoes or opening and closing hands.
  • Biting and chewing objects or material.
  • Humming, repeating phrases, film quotes or song lyrics over and over.
  • Picking material, noses, ears or skin.
  • Opening and closing doors or windows.

Stims should never be suppressed unless they are causing harm in some way. Unfortunately, however, society often views these movements as odd or inappropriate so it may be possible to try and find less obvious stims when in public or perhaps delay them until we are in a safe place.

Highly focused interests

Sometimes called ‘intense interests’ or ‘special interests’. They are more than just hobbies and interests. We experience them much more deeply and they give us immense pleasure, comfort and a much- needed opportunity to de-stress and recharge our batteries.

Sensory Differences

Sensory differences are often the biggest disabling factors affecting autistic people in daily life affecting everything we do to some degree or another. But they frequently also bring with them a dimension to sensory experience that non-autistic brains do not share.

Our senses affect how we feel and act, both mentally and physically. We can experience senses too much or too little. It feels as if we have no sensory filters: instead of our brains filtering out sensory input, everything is allowed to rush through all at once. We can experience genuine and debilitating pain from a sensory experience that others do not.

Sometimes we seek out strong sensory input – known as sensory seeking. In addition, it’s not uncommon for us to have additional difficulties from sensory processing disorders, which may cause us to misinterpret our sensory input, or not be aware of it.

Headaches and migraines are a common feature in our daily lives and sensory sensitivities are one of the common contributors.

Sensory overload, meltdowns and shutdowns

Sensory overload is a form of information overload, that happens when a brain simply cannot cope with the amount of sensory input it is being exposed to. It cannot process anything more and may shut down completely. It is extremely common in autism and for the person experiencing it, it is exhausting, painful and scary. It is also greatly affects executive functioning.

Meltdowns and shutdowns are a very distressing and extreme reaction to sensory overload, change in routine, communication difficulties or anxiety, frustration, loss of independence or autonomy and many autistic people have them. They occur when an autistic person has become completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses control of their behaviour. During a meltdown, we will not be able to process any more input whatsoever.

When in meltdown, we may cry, scream, get angry, shout, or express our pain physically by hitting out. By the time we are in full meltdown, we are completely unable to control our behaviour or emotions and it is too late to stop the meltdown. At this stage, all we can do is ride it out.

Obviously, it is distressing to watch someone having a meltdown, but it is far, far more distressing for the person themselves. It is an exhausting and painful experience and many autistic adults will tell you that despite having no control over the situation, they will feel embarrassed, deeply ashamed and utterly exhausted afterwards. Most of us would rather avoid them at all costs. Meltdowns are no more in a person’s control than epileptic fits. Nor are they tantrums, although they may look the same.

Shutdowns can occur for all the same reasons already mentioned. When we shutdown, we may appear to ‘switch ‘off’ – withdraw and be unusually quiet or non-speaking.

Autism myths

  • Myth 1: Autism only affects children: Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition. Autistic children will grow into autistic adults.
  • Myth 2: Autism only affects boys: Autistic boys and girls grow to be autistic men and women. Autism in women and girls in particular is often missed or only diagnosed later in life.
  • Myth 3: Autistic people do not have empathy and are unable to show emotion: We have as much or as little empathy as any other human. We may or may not show it in the same ways as non-autistic people, and in fact, many autistic people have extreme empathy.
  • Myth 4: Autism is an intellectual disability: If someone has an intellectual (or any other) disability it is in addition to and separate to our autistic traits. Although, like anyone else, we can have other conditions or disabilities in addition to autism, including specific learning disorders, intellectual disability, physical or psychological disorders or anything else.
  • Myth 5: All autistic people are savants or have a superpower: Although many of us consider our unique abilities as ‘superpowers’, only a small number of autistic people are savants.
  • Myth 6: Autism is a disease that needs treatment: Autism is simply a neurodevelopmental variation or difference. In other words, our autistic brains develop with the rest of our body and just work differently to neurotypical brains. We aren’t disordered, dysfunctional or less than. We do not need treatment or therapy to make us act like non-autistic people.
  • Myth 7: Autism is a psychiatric disorder: Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, not a psychiatric disorder, although just like anyone else, we may suffer from mental health conditions in addition to our autism.
  • Myth 8: Autism is caused by vaccines: This myth has been completely and utterly debunked by science. In the 1990s some dubious research was published, igniting a myth around vaccines and autism. Science has since concluded that the research was not conducted under accepted scientific standards and was also completely non-replicable. The physician behind the study has since been stripped of his medical license.
  • Myth 9: There are more autistic people than ever before and autism is becoming an epidemic: Autism is not a disease, nor is on the increase. As awareness and understanding of autism grows, more people are diagnosed, including females, adults and elderly people, who were previously missed.
  • Myth 10: Autism is caused by bad parenting: This myth came about in the 1940s and unfortunately, the term stuck hard and is taking a long time to erase.
  • Myth 11: All autistic children sit in the corner and rock or are unable to interact in any way: Some autistic children and some non-autistic children rock, for all kinds of reasons. It is not an autistic trait.
  • Myth 12: Autistic people are anti-social or have no need or desire for social contact: All humans have social and companionship needs and autistic people are no different. Sometimes, the way we outwardly appear to be socialising is misunderstood by non-autistic people.

Lots more information and resources specific to autism can be found on our resources page here.

© Vanessa Hughes, May 2022
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