Autism 101- Intro to the Spectrum

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Apologies to anyone who got an email yesterday- my computer had a moment and hit publish with only two lines written! ๐Ÿ˜›

Today I’m going to discuss some of the basics of autism to better acquaint you with the condition. As a scientist, I’ve read my fair share of research papers on the subject…

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…so I’ll try my best to break it down! ๐Ÿ™‚

Autism is defined as a pervasive neruodevelopmental disorder.

“What on earth is that?!”ย 

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This simply means that autism is a disorder that impairs the normal growth and development of the brain resulting in a wide range of effects throughout the body.

Simple enough ๐Ÿ™‚

Autism is thought to impair the development of the brain in areas associated with social interaction and communication, however, some studies suggest that the disorder may in fact affect the entire brain.

So how do these impairments manifest?

Typically, people with autism show deficits in three main areas:

  • Social communication
  • Social interaction
  • Social imagination ย (this basically means that we struggle to predict the reactions of others, understand abstract ideas, imagine situations outside of daily routine etc).

These are known as the ‘triad of impairments’. There is also a fourth area of impairment describing struggles with sensory processing (touch, sound, light etc.), but ‘tetrad’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!

Each autistic person has their own unique blend of symptoms ranging from mild to severe (there’s FAR too many to detail in this post alone). No two individuals with autism are the same.

Forget about the stereotypes- if you’ve met one, you’ve met only one.

Here’s a little schematic I threw together showing how symptoms can vary using academic ability as an example:

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Such variations led to the catch-all concept of the autistic spectrum.

Everyone exhibits some autistic traits (my friends have remarked that the more traits I describe the more they think they have autism! ๐Ÿ˜› ), but it is when you exhibit a high number of these traits that you are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For example, the average person scores ~15-17 out of 50 on the autism-spectrum quotient test, whereas the average autist scores 35 (I scored 38…!).

There are currently four separate ASDโ€™s listed on the spectrumโ€“ Aspergerโ€™s syndrome (yours truly!), autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). I’ll write separate posts about these in due course ๐Ÿ™‚

So what actually causes autism?

In truth- we don’t know for sure!

Most evidence points to a genetic cause as autism can be hereditary, but there has been no one autism gene isolated. As autism operates on a spectrum, it’s likely that there are numerous factors at play in each ASD. The current thinking is that lot’s of smaller gene mutations combine to cause autism. Like the X-men launching an attack! ๐Ÿ˜‰

As interesting as the science of autism is however, it can’t really explain the experience.

The easiest way to explain it I find, is to consider Supergirl.

Supergirl is an alien from the fictional planet Krypton. The elder cousin of Superman, she arrives on Earth as a teenager, a stranger in a strange land. ย She looks like a human, talks like human and for the most part acts human, but Supergirl does not see the world as a human does; she perceives the world as a Kryptonian. When she first arrived on Earth, Supergirl had to learn to blend in. She would have struggled to learn our customs, sayings and social ways, all the while concealing her true alien self lest she be ostracized, just as I’ve had to do.

That’s what autism feels like- being an alien from another planet. What’s normal for you seems weird to the rest of the world. Social rules confuse you, you interpret things differently and find yourself spending much of your time hiding your quirks from sight.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts however, the autistic experience, while different, is not necessarily bad. With different perspectives and brain chemistry come different abilities. Like Supergirl, many of us have unique gifts and talents to share.

I can’t say that I have laser eyes or the ability to fly like her, but I am pretty handy with a set of knitting needles creating patterns off the top of my head! ๐Ÿ™‚ Knitting was a struggle for me at first- I was the WORST in my class for years, but one day it just clicked! Something I was once terrible at could now be considered a superpower of sorts!

sgsd

This is one thing that I’d like to emphasize in these blogs- struggle. You’ll find that I will never use the word ‘can’t’ in relation to autism.

In these posts, I want to highlight that yes, autism is a struggle- life can be bloody hard at times; but just because we struggle, does not mean that we are not capable, or that we should be treated as such.

I have struggled with many things in life- learning to drive, knit, dance, tying my shoelaces etc.Yes, indeed I struggled, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t capable, it just took me a little bit longer. Like Supergirl, the struggle passes and you learn to adapt.

The hardware in our brains may be a little different, but with software updates, patches and a little patience, we can learn to function as well as any other computer ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

PS- For the budding writers out there struggling with writers block as I did this week, shopping helps! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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