Published on April 2nd, 2014 | by Olivia Bolton0
World Autism Awareness Day
April 2nd is Autism Awareness Day. But what is autism, and why is awareness of autism so important? Olivia Bolton explains.
There are around 700,000 people diagnosed with autism in the UK and autism touches the lives of 2.7 million people every day. With the prevalence of autism on the rise it is about time that people do their best to increase their understanding of this often misjudged and generalised condition.
What is autism?
Autism is a spectrum disorder (ASD), in that its symptoms can range from minor to quite extreme and debilitating. The exact cause of ASD is not known, but it is thought that a complex mix of environmental and genetic factors are involved. Recent research conducted at the University of California suggests that autism starts during prenatal development. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the research suggests that in children diagnosed with autism, there are patches of abnormal development in layers of the cerebral cortex that form during prenatal development. Surprisingly, the defects were similar in all the autistic brains studied, despite the diversity of symptoms. Though in its early stages, the research could go towards developing brain scans that can detect autism before there are any significant behavioural symptoms present. Early intervention therapies for children with autism can help to “re-wire” their brains to avoid the defective patches, senior author Dr Courchesne proposes.
There are three main symptoms associated with autism, sometimes referred to as the Triad of impairments. These are; difficulties with communication, lack of imagination and problems with social relations. Difficulties with both verbal and nonverbal communication can significantly impact the day to day life of people with ASD. People with ASD can struggle with the idea of the “give and take” nature of conversation and knowing how to start or end a conversation. Social imagination allows us to understand and predict the behaviour of others. Because people with ASD often lack imagination and they can often find difficulties in predicting what will happen next, preparing for change or understanding the concept of danger. Social relations are important to build up relationships with the people around us in our day to day life. Because people with ASD can struggle with expressing their emotions and understanding the concept of “me” and “you” as separate people and minds, they can often struggle to build those relationships that people without ASD often take for granted.
Understanding and living with autism
I have been around people with Autism for the best part of my life, growing up with an autistic sibling and working with autistic children and young people for the last year. By no stretch of the imagination do I consider myself to be an expert on the subject, but I definitely consider myself to be more aware of the challenges that people with ASD face than others who are not familiar with the disorder. One thing that is certain — everyone individual on the ASD spectrum is unique. While ASD can be detrimental to the day to day life of an individual, 40% of those with ASD have average to above average intellectual abilities. I have met individuals with ASD who are very social, intelligent and engaging. I have also met those who are non-verbal, frustrated and very confused.
The challenge is not just for those with ASD, but also for the people around them. Parents, siblings and care givers can often feel unsupported and overwhelmed when dealing with the challenges of autism. As a care giver I can only say how important external support is. The support and encouragement of a community will do more to helping you cope than any book or website will. People with autism are not always “difficult”, I have laughed and I have cried because of individuals with ASD but I have also been amazed, inspired and touched by them too. Having someone in your life who is autistic will definitely introduce you to a unique set of challenges, it will also enrich your life and provide you with an entirely new perspective.
The generalisation of people with ASD is what needs to change. The view that people with ASD are “just weird” or that autism can be just a quirk of personality is a problem that people with ASD face on top of their already challenging condition. There is a definite need for greater autism acceptance in general society. The National Autistic Society published figures that estimate over 40% of children diagnosed with autism are bullied at school and at least 1 in 3 adults diagnosed with autism are experiencing severe mental health difficulties because they do not have the appropriate levels of support. What it comes down to is the general stigma against disability that needs to change.
To anyone interested in learning more about autism I thoroughly recommend reading “The Reason I Jump“, by Naoki Higashida. The author is autistic and, written when he was just 13 years old, the book is certainly an eye opener to those not well acquainted with autism. Naoki highlights how not all difficulties encountered by people with autism are because of the condition itself, but more from the myths of autism and the lack of understanding of autism in general in society.
World Autism Awareness Day
World Autism Awareness Day — recognised by the United Nations and used by autism organisations worldwide to raise awareness of autism and raise funds — is today, 2nd April. Getting involved? Use hashtags to share your AutismKindnessActs #AKA or LightItUpBlue #LIUB.