What is Autism

by Care Speech Pathology 
4 November 2022

Awareness of autism within the general population has increased significantly in recent decades and the term is now familiar to most people. Despite this, there remain a number of stereotypes around autism (some helpful, and some not-so-helpful!) and it can be difficult to get a clear answer about what autism really means. Below, we help you to separate the fact from the fiction.

What is Autism?

Autism is a diagnosis that explains a range of neurological differences in people who think and behave differently to those who are ‘neurotypical’. This diagnosis is made using a tool called the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders – 5 (DSM-5) and the official diagnostic term is “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD). While autism is medically considered to be a developmental disorder, there is a growing neurodiversity movement that promotes the term ‘differences’ rather than ‘disorder’.

When talking to or about someone with autism, it is important to check with them which label they prefer. Some people wish to be called a “person with autism” while others may want to be called an “autistic person” or even “autistic”. There is no right or wrong answer to this – it is simply a personal preference.

Autism is a life-long diagnosis. This means you are born with it – in other words, it is not something that you can acquire later in life, or something that you can ‘cure’. Although a person may not receive a diagnosis until their teenage or adult years, they will have had autism since birth. Sometimes the signs are subtle, and it can take a while for a person’s difficulties to become noticeable.

In order to receive an autism diagnosis, a person must first meet criteria in categories relating to:

  • social communication difficulties; and
  • restrictive and/or repetitive behaviors.

For each of these areas, a level of severity is assigned to describe the level of support that is likely to be required for daily living and functioning in the community. These range from Level 1 (Requiring Support) to Level 3 (Requiring Very Substantial Support).

What is true, and what isn’t?

Myth #1: People with autism don’t know they have autism.

Fact – Autism is a diagnosis that is made following comprehensive assessment by a team of health professionals with knowledge of this condition. The person with autism, or their parent, is heavily involved in this process and the outcome will be communicated clearly with them. This means that most people with autism are aware they have autism.

Myth #2: People with autism are usually geniuses.

Fact – The diagnosis of autism is made based on social communication and behaviour traits. It is not linked to a person’s intelligence. While it is true that there are some people with autism who have high intelligence, there are other people with autism who have average or low intelligence.

Myth #3: People with autism don’t make eye contact.

Fact – While social communication difficulties are present in people with autism, not all autistic people will have difficulty with non-verbal social communication cues, such as eye contact. The range of social communication difficulties that are experienced by people with autism varies greatly.

Myth #4: People with autism need to have everything ordered and organised.

Fact – Some individuals with autism do like order and organisation, especially if their restrictive and repetitive behaviours include activities such as lining up or ordering objects. However for others, the repetitive behaviours may be more verbal in nature (for example the use of repetitive speech) and physical organisation may be less important. Again, this is very dependent on the individual.

Myth #5: People with autism have a more severe form of Asperges Syndrome.

Fact – The term Asperges Syndrome is no longer used. The term autism is now used to describe all presentations and the level of impact is measured using a number from 1-3.

What causes autism?

This a much-asked question, however the true answer is no-one is sure. Despite extensive and ongoing research in this area, experts have not found a definitive cause.

What we do know is that there are some characteristics that can be related to an autism diagnosis. For example, people with an autism diagnosis are more likely to:

  • be male – boys are between 2.5 to 4 times more likely to receive an autism diagnosis
  • have a twin or sibling with autism
  • have older parents
  • have a mother who had gestational diabetes, gestational bleeding or who used anti-depressants during pregnancy
  • have been small at birth, had a low 5-minute APGAR score or other fetal distress

How is autism tested?

Formal diagnostic assessments are usually performed by a paediatrician or a team of health professionals who are familiar with autism.

The role of the Speech Pathologist in this process is to test communication and social skills. This will include learning about the person’s communication skills at home, school or work, and providing recommendations about how best to support them. The Speech Pathologist will then document these findings in a report to assist with the diagnostic process

How do you help someone with autism?

Where possible, it is best to seek help for a person with autism while they are still young. Early intervention enables us to set children up for success and give them the best possible chance of an amazing future.

Speech Pathologists play a crucial role in autism therapy. They assist people with autism to develop their communication and social skills across a variety of settings such as home, school and work. They are specially trained to support people with autism at all levels of communication – from helping to implement a communication (AAC) device at home to getting ready for high school exams.

Speech Pathologists work with people with autism both 1-on-1 and in groups, and place a lot of emphasis on family-centred practice. That means the Speech Pathologist doesn’t only work with the individual with autism themselves – they will also want to get to know all of the other important people in their life!

Fortunately, research, awareness and public advocacy are increasing all the time, and leading to better and better outcomes for people with autism. People with autism are now able to access the supports they need to help them reach their goals and participate meaningfully in their community.

For more information, you may like to read our blog posts on:

Contact us today to find out how a Speech Pathologist from our team can support you or your loved one who has autism. Call us on 1300 086 280 or email us at [email protected] to book an initial consultation.

References

Campisi, L., Imran, N., Nazeer, A., Skokauskas, N., & Azeem, M. W. (2018). Autism spectrum disorder. British Medical Bulletin, 127(1).

Rydzewska, E., Hughes-McCormack, L. A., Gillberg, C., Henderson, A., MacIntyre, C., Rintoul, J., & Cooper, S. A. (2019). Age at identification, prevalence and general health of children with autism: observational study of a whole country population. BMJ open, 9(7), e025904.

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