Autism, also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts the way a person’s brain and body work. There is no specific cause for autism, and it can affect anyone- regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, spirituality, age, sexual orientation or gender. It is not contagious. According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 68 people have autism and that number is rising.
Everyone with autism is not the same. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it looks different depending on the person and their level of functioning. Each person with autism has their own strengths and challenges.
People who have autism can possess great strengths. It’s important to think about strengths individually. Each person is unique and will have unique strengths. Remember that not all people who have autism will look and act the same way.
People with autism can also have challenges. Like strengths, challenges are unique to the individual and can be barely recognizable, like having some trouble keeping up a conversation, or very prominent, such as not speaking at all (being non-verbal).
General strengths may include:
- Being detail-oriented
People with autism can have great attention to detail
- Having high skill level in certain areas
People with autism tend to do research and study in specific areas that appeal to them, giving them excellent knowledge in these areas
- Using logical thinking skills
In making decisions where emotions may impact choice, individuals with autism are often able to make clear and logical decisions
- Having less focus on the opinion of others
This one can be a strength and a challenge, people with autism are often less concerned with what others think of them
- Using independent thinking skills
People with autism tend to be less swayed by the opinions of others and often think about things differently, giving them a unique perspective
- Visual processing skills
People with autism are often visually processing, meaning that they think in picture or sound
- Direct communication
People with autism tend to be direct, which helps them to be clear communicators
- Nonjudgmental listening skills
- Average or above average intelligence
General challenges for someone with autism may include:
- Difficulty with receptive communication (understanding what’s coming at you)
- Struggling to understand what is said- especially if multiple things are said very quickly
- Requiring extra time to process what has been said
- Requiring extra time to respond when being asked something or in conversation
- Difficulty with expressive communication (explaining how you are thinking or feeling)
- No talking at all (sometimes referred to as being non-verbal) or, limited talking- using sign language or a device to communicate
- Talking in a unique way, using very formal words or sounding monotone
- Repeating words or phrases , sometimes even when they don’t seem to make sense in the conversation
- Difficulty with social situations
- Difficulty understanding the perspective (thoughts and feelings) of other people
- Tendency to be concrete and literal, meaning difficulty “ reading between the lines” or understanding sarcasm, slang, or gestures
- Trouble starting a conversation, maintaining it or staying on topic
- Trouble knowing when it’s time to talk, or when to begin or end conversations
- Saying things bluntly, sometimes being perceived as rude
- Not using greetings/closings (like “hi” or “bye”)
- Receiving too much sensory information from the environment and being overwhelmed by it- sensitivity to light, sounds, noises, movement, smell, taste or touch
- Trouble with balance or coordinated movement
- Self-stimulation (also called stereotypy or stimming)- using repetitive body movements or movement of objects (staring at lights, hand flapping, making sounds, rubbing skin, rocking, licking or smelling things) to help manage sensory overload or help increase sensation, manage emotions or self-soothe
- Tantrums or meltdowns which can often be caused by receiving too much information from the environment and becoming overwhelmed
- Reduced or increased sensitivity to pain
Just like any one of us, people with autism may have unique sensory needs, including being over or under-sensitive to a variety of sensations through touch, feel, smell, sound, sight, movement and balance. You can satisfy certain sensory needs (sensations that are calming for you) by using a variety of sensory tools or activities.
Know someone who has autism? Help support them.
Accept that they have some differences
Ask them to explain what they are thinking or feeling, or the things that they struggle with. Open communication will help you to build trust and it may help them to feel more comfortable around you.
Support them socially
People who have autism can struggle in social situations, make sure you are being clear with what you mean when you speak and staying away from sarcasm because they may not understand it. Be patient, like you would for anyone who is learning something new!
Help them out in new or challenging environments
Some places can be overwhelming for people with autism. Support them by becoming familiar with the things that they struggle with. Help them to avoid these things or help them cope and get through them- examples might include turning down harsh lights, loud music or avoiding large crowds.
Also help them with people who might not understand
You now have a lot of information- pass it along! You can be an advocate for people with autism. Explain the things you know to others, so that they can better understand.
Strive to make the environments you are in more sensory friendly
Whether it’s your room at home, in your school or in an activity- be an advocate. You can help to make environments more sensory-friendly for someone who is autistic. Be aware of harsh lights, sounds, noises or smells, and ask before you touch someone- even if it’s a simple pat on the back.