World Autism Awareness DayLifelong disability that affects how a person communicates and relates with others
It’s afflicted brilliant minds from Andy Warhol to Albert Einstein, and affects one in 100 people in the UK today.
Yet though most people will have heard of autism, few truly understand what having the condition means.
So, for World Autism Awareness Day today (April 2), leading charities across the globe have joined forces to highlight the syndrome, how it affects sufferers and what exactly it is.
As the National Autistic Society explains: “Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.”
It presents itself in different ways and to differing degrees – so that while all people with autism may share certain difficulties, how it affects them varies greatly. Some are more than capable of living independent lives, but others may need a lifetime of specialist support.
One of the major barriers to awareness and understanding is that people with the condition do not “look” disabled. As the Autism Education Trust notes: “Parents of children with autism often say that other people simply think their child is naughty; while adults find that they are misunderstood.”
Meanwhile what often adds to the confusion is that there are various different types of, and names for, the condition - from autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) to classic autism or Kanner autism, Asperger’s, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) or high-functioning autism (HFA).
Key to any diagnosis, however, are three main areas of difficulty, known as the “triad of impairments”: difficulty with social communication, difficulty with social interaction and difficulty with social imagination.
The National Autistic Society adds: “People with autism have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal language… ‘Body language' can appear just as foreign as if people were speaking ancient Greek.
“Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say.”
They can also find it difficult to use or understand facial expressions or tone of voice; jokes and sarcasm; common phrases and sayings that cannot be taken literally, for example: ‘it’s cool’.
Autistic people can also have difficulty recognising or understanding other people's emotions, which means they do not always understand the ‘rules’ of social interaction, such as how close to stand to other people, what may be inappropriate topics of conversation or being apparently insensitive to someone else's feelings.
The result is that people with autism may find it hard to form friendships, understand concepts of consequence or danger or cope in new and unfamiliar situations.
In some cases people with autism may also experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, taste, smell, light or colours. Many may display a love of routines, certain special – some might say obsessive – interests and in some cases other learning disabilities.
One well-known form of autism is Asperger’s syndrome, whereby sufferers are often of average or above average intelligence and tend not to have problems with speech, but may still have issues with understanding and processing language as well as obsessions with complex topics such as music.
It is this form that experts suggest may have afflicted the likes of Warhol, Einstein and even Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
Meanwhile famous names today who have been diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum include 80s synth pop pioneer Gary Numan, PokeMon creator Satoshi Tajiri and American jazz prodigy Matt Savage.
As for its causes, little is known about why some people have the condition, although there is a suggestion that it can be genetic, and environmental factors may also play a role.
Experts say that the right support can make a huge difference to the lives of those affected and their families.
Proper specialist education, speech, language and behavioural therapies, dietary interventions and some medications can all help.
Awareness, swift diagnosis and proper ongoing support are key because, as the National Autistic Society points out, more than 40 per cent of children with autism have been bullied at school, more than 50 per cent are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them, one in five has been excluded from school and at least one in three adults with autism are experiencing severe mental health problems due to lack of support.
For more information see the National Autistic Society website or ring the helpline on 0808 800 4104.
This article was published on Mon 2 April 2012
Image © Katrina Brown - Fotolia.com
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