What is autism?
A good understanding of anything begins with a clear definition. In my experience, there are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding the definition of autism which contribute to the stigma people on the spectrum experience. In this post, I will try to clear up some common misconceptions and give a clearer understanding of how autism is defined.
The National Autistic Society offers the following definition for autism:
"A lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them."
The autism charity Autistica offers an alternative definition:
"Autism changes the way people communicate and experience the world around them. Autism is a spectrum of developmental conditions, including Asperger’s Syndrome. Every autistic person is different. Some are able to learn, live and work independently but many have learning differences or co-occurring health conditions that require specialist support."
For me, this second definition is helpful for explaining to others how my autism affects me, in a way that clearly communicates my abilities as well as my areas of difficulty. In my experience, it is a common misconception that autism is a learning disability. This is untrue, and often leads people to assume that autistic people have low intelligence. In fact, research has found that many people with ASD have above-average intelligence. However, it is also possible to have a learning disability in addition to having autism, and Autistica estimates that this is the case for around 4 in 10 people with autism.
So what is meant by a developmental condition? Put simply, this means that autistic brains develop differently to non-autistic brains. The exact nature of these differences is not yet fully understood, but research suggests that there may well be neuro-biological and structural differences in the brain that contribute to the symptoms of autism. Because of this, many people with autism refer to themselves as being "wired differently" or "neuro-atypical".
In terms of symptoms, autism affects each person differently in a variety of ways. By virtue of being a difference in brain development, autism can affect every aspect of cognition or thought. The most well-known symptoms include difficulties understanding other people's cognitive and emotional processes, difficulties with non-verbal communication (such as tone, facial expressions or body language), and differences in the way that a person approaches social relationships with others. However, autism can also cause sensory processing differences (being under- or over- sensitive to sensory information), executive functioning difficulties (planning and sequencing actions to reach a goal), difficulty understanding and processing one's own emotions, and differences in the way a person understands and uses concepts and meaning. This is a brief explanation of symptoms, which I will cover more in future posts, but gives an idea of the scope of impact that autism can have on a person's experiences of the world.
In summary, autism is a difference in the way that a person's brain develops that causes them to think about and experience the world differently to non-autistic people. It is not a learning disability or a mental health condition, though people with autism can have both of these in addition to having autism. I hope this provides a good starting point for thinking and talking about autism. In my next post I will try to address some of these symptoms in greater detail. Feel free to comment below with any topics you'd like me to address or discuss, keep an eye out for future content, and subscribe for updates!