What does AUTISM mean to me?

The Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV)‘s definition of Autism is as follows:

ASD is a spectrum of disorders characterized by impairments in three areas (also known as the ‘Triad of Impairments’):

  1. Communication- delays in language development; impaired ability to initiate and/ or sustain conversations
  2. Social skills- lack of typical eye-contact when communicating; failure to display and/or identify and express appropriate emotions; limited peer relationships
  3. Repetitive and stereotyped behaviours and interests- inflexibility to routine changes; intense preoccupation to objects

Having worked with students and young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders for years, it comes to no surprise that people often ask me what Autism is, probably expecting a simplified version of the one offered by the DSM-IV. However, my response often pleasantly surprises most people. I believe that Autism represents a great personal and societal responsibility to learn, understand and embrace the different ways in which human beings are.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition which affects between 1/88 to 1/100 individuals. Compared to those without the condition, each individual with Autism is observed to have unique developmental trajectories particularly in the areas of language and social skills. To understand how different their language and social interactions can be, watch the Youtube clip below which features Amanda Baggs, a young woman with Autism:

Amanda made a very important point there when she asked why her “failure to learn our language is seen as a deficit while our failure to learn hers is seen as natural”. This to me highlights one of the deficiencies of the DSM’s definition stated above. The DSM states that people with Autism’s ability to initiate and sustain conversations is impaired. However, I feel that this does not take into consideration the various different ways in which people with Autism attempt to communicate with us. I believe that half of this communication difficulty lies within us Neurotypicals. We need to figure out whether or not a person with Autism is communicating with us and what they are trying to tell us.

Dr. Thomas Armstrong pointed out in his book that individuals with Autism are normally viewed in terms of what they can’t do instead of what they can. This can be seen in the definition above- individuals can’t do this, can’t do that, and they are impaired in this and that areas of development. As mentioned, I prefer to think of Autism as a different developmental trajectory. Not impaired; not disabled. If we take a closer look at the way they process visual information, we will notice that they have a phenomenal eye for detail. some of them also have amazing memories.An example of how great a person with Autism’s memory could be is the case of Kim Peek, also known as ‘The Real Rain Man’, as he was the inspiration behind Dustin Hoffman’s move, Rain Man.

A person who demonstrates both the ability to keep an eye for detail and memorizing is Stephen Wiltshire. Stephen, who is diagnosed with Autism at an early age, is a British artist capable of drawing detailed and accurate depictions of cities and landmarks from memory. Take a look:

Stephen Wiltshire draws Rome from memory:

It is important to keep in mind that people with Autism are not one and the same. As Francesca Happe stated, ‘when you meet one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism’. Stephen Wiltshire, Kim Peek and Amanda Baggs are in no way representative of every single person with Autism. Nevertheless, they represent the different ways in which Autism manifests. More importantly, their cases highlight the fact that a diagnosis of Autism marks not the end of the road to life, but the beginning of the road to understanding and acceptance. People with Autism may not be the same as you and I, but that does not mean that they should be ignored, avoided or be pitied. We have an enormous responsibility not only to help and support them, but also to help other people understand what Autism really is. We have to start viewing Autism in the light of what they CAN do, not on what they can’t.

More on Autism:

He flaps his hands and screams a lot but he doesn’t mean to annoy you

Optimum Outcomes for people with Autism

DSM 5 and its implications to ASD diagnosis

Diagnosing Autism: What you need to know

Vote for Miss Montana 2012, Alexis Wineman

What is PDD-NOS?

Communication difficulties in Autism

Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper: Asperger’s Syndrome’s Poster Boy?

Still unsure if Sheldon has Asperger’s?

DSM-V and Autism

The Autistic Me: BBC Documentary

Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds

Autism in the classroom:

Guide to parents of students with ASD on coping with the first day back to school

Common signs of Autism in the classroom

First day back to school: Top tips for parents of children with Autism

Practical tips to make your classroom Autism-Friendly

Inspiring People with Autism:

Dr. Temple Grandin

Jessica-Jane Applegate (British Paralympian)

Satoshi Tajiri (Pokemon creator)

Carly Fleischmann

More on Savants:

The Psychology of Savants: Memory Masters

Artists with Autism

The Einstein Effect: Is there a link between having Autism and being a genius?

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