About Autism

About Autism

About Autism

Generally speaking, people with autism don’t look different than anyone else. However, the way that they behave, communicate or interact around other people might look a lot different than what we are used to.

There are a variety of features (listed below) that can make up a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Each individual can have any combination - or any degree of severity - of those traits.

Autism is a structural difference in the brain that becomes identifiable in early childhood and lasts throughout a person's life. Some parents notice differences in their child within the first few months of life, other children may not show signs until they are two years or older. People with Asperger's/high-functioning autism are often more likely to receive a diagnosis later in life, sometimes not until adulthood, when their skills and development become noticeably different from that of their peers.

It's important to remember that autism is a "spectrum disorder". This means that, just as the features and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are extremely varied, the impact and severity of the symptoms experienced by each person will also vary significantly.

Girl hugging cat

This contributes to why some people with Asperger's/high-functioning autism can experience very complex issues. While they may be highly functioning in some areas of life, they may also have what amounts to a learning disability in one or more other areas.

Because ASD is a developmental disorder, the characteristics presented may change with age, with certain symptoms becoming more or less pronounced throughout a person’s lifetime. Intervention and treatment often helps symptoms improve over time.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or Autism, is a neurological condition that affects how the brain functions. The result is that most individuals experience communication problems, difficulty with social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. The way Autism affects an individual can vary a lot from person to person. It is a “spectrum” disorder because each person with autism is unique. The support needs of individuals with autism may also range from none to very substantial.

A person on the Autism spectrum may have cognitive impairment or an intellectual disability-however, it is worth noting that nearly half of all children on the spectrum are of average or above-average intelligence. ASD is typically accompanied by co-occurring medical conditions such as epilepsy, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal (gut) abnormalities and immune dysregulation. Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are common. Any of these conditions may severely impact an individual’s quality of life.

Sensory issues are extremely common. People on the spectrum may be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, touch and/or taste. For example, loud noises, bright lights, scratchy clothes, or certain textures can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Autistic people might also have an unusually high tolerance for pain, which can be extremely dangerous.

Autism is usually first diagnosed in childhood with many of the most-obvious signs presenting around 2-3 years old. According to the 2018 Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Autism Spectrum Disorders Surveillance System (NASS) report, approximately 1 in 66 Canadian children and youth are diagnosed as being on the Autism spectrum, with boys diagnosed four to five times more frequently than girls are.

In the greater Edmonton area, it is estimated that over 22,000 families are directly affected by Autism.

Autism is a complex life-long condition that affects not only the individual, but also their families, caregivers, and communities.

While both genetics and environment likely play a role, its exact cause remains unknown.

There is a lot of research being done worldwide to understand how genes and exposure to things in the environment can increase the risk that a child will have ASD. However, it is important to keep in mind that increased risk is not the same as cause. For example, some gene changes associated with ASD can also be found in people who do not have the disorder.

It is important to know that vaccines do not cause autism. No links have been found connecting vaccines with a higher risk of developing ASD. Immunize Canada states that, “the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) has conducted evidence-based reviews and has rejected any causal associations between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorders in children.” Separate Danish and Canadian research have also confirmed these findings. The idea of a link between autism and vaccines originated as a result of a now-discredited study which was conducted by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and published in the medical journal called The Lancet in 1998. The Lancet fully retracted the discredited paper in 2010. An investigation published by the British Medical Journal found the study to be fraudulent and that the medical histories in the study had been altered and misrepresented by Wakefield (Wakefield was later stripped of his license to practice medicine).

Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that impacts a person’s:

  • communication (both verbal and non-verbal)
  • social interaction (ability to form or understand relationships)
  • perception, behaviour, and interests (sensory or emotional perception, repetitive or unusual behaviors, restricted or obsessive interests)

Some people on the Autism spectrum can speak very well, while others speak very little or with great difficulty. Recent
figures show
that roughly 25% of people on the spectrum do not speak at all.

It is essential to realize that there are many types of communication, both verbal and non-verbal. Just because someone
on the Autism spectrum is not verbal, does not mean that they are not able to communicate in other ways.

Another notable trend is that the number of non-verbal people on the spectrum who stay non-verbal is dropping, as a
result of direct intervention and the use of assistive technologies.

The following are some of the examples of ASD-related communication issues:

  • delayed speech and language skills;
  • repeating words or phrases over and over (known as “echolalia”);
  • reversing pronouns in speech (e.g., saying “you” instead of “I”);
  • using few or no gestures (e.g., does not wave goodbye);
  • trouble regulating pitch or volume while speaking (such as a flat or “sing-song” voice);
  • not understanding jokes, sarcasm, or teasing (taking things too literally);
  • trouble with back-and-forth conversation.

Social interaction involves the ability to recognize and understand emotional expressions (including one’s own) and to reciprocate or adjust behaviour in a social context (such as taking turns, initiating, or responding to interaction, sharing information). Social interaction is our basis for forming relationships. Examples of social interaction issues related to ASD include the following:

  • not understanding personal space boundaries;
  • interacting only to achieve a desired goal;
  • difficulty learning to “take turns” and share;
  • trouble understanding different types of relationships;
  • appearing unable to be comforted by others during distress.

Often if a person with autism seems unable to be comforted during times of distress, it is because there are other sensory issues present. For example, someone with auditory sensitivity would not be calmed by someone speaking to them or gently saying, “ssshhhh”. Someone with tactile sensitivity might not respond well to a hug, or even a soft touch.

Imagination allows us to perceive our environment and surroundings, make sense of abstract ideas, and conceive of situations outside of our immediate daily routine. It also allows us to understand and predict the feelings and behaviours of others. Some examples of issues related to imagination/perception include:

  • lining up their toys, books, or other objects;
  • playing with toys the same way every time, or focusing on very specific parts (e.g., wheels, doors);
  • seeing or hearing things in a completely different way than those around them;
  • being unable to comprehend another person’s perspective;
  • having obsessive interests or being unable to switch their attention to another topic;
  • having to follow certain routines (which may seem unusual or unnecessary).

There are several other symptoms that may present themselves along with the more traditional features of autism, such as:

  • hyperactivity (unusually over-active);
  • impulsivity (acting without thinking);
  • short attention span;
  • aggression;
  • self-injury;
  • temper tantrums;
  • anxiety or depression issues;
  • unusual mood or inappropriate emotional reactions;
  • unusual eating and sleeping habits.

While every person will develop in a different way and at a different pace, there are certain milestones that most children reach at specific ages. For example, some “red flags” for children that indicate a possible need for assessment are:

  • not responding to their name (by 12 months of age);
  • not pointing at objects to show their interest (by 14 months);
  • not playing “pretend” or imaginary games (by 18 months).

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