New research tells us that one in 88 people display features which place them on the Autism Spectrum (ASD). We have been hearing more and more about A
utism, particularly Asperger’s Syndrome, a sub-group of the Autism Spectrum, through the media over the past few years and many people know of someone on the Autism Spectrum.
This article will explore the higher functioning sub-groups of Autism, that is, Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD NOS) and High Functioning Autism, which have features in common with Asperger’s Syndrome. Consequently, assessment and intervention are similar for all three groups. We shall also look at the implications for parents raising a child on the higher functioning end of the Autism Spectrum.
People on the Autism Spectrum process information differently due to different neurological wiring from birth. You cannot ‘catch’ Autism. It is a developmental difference related to factors that affect brain development and not due to emotional deprivation or other psychogenic factors. Thus, children and adults on the Autism Spectrum tend to think differently, have different priorities and perceive things differently from those who are not on the Autism Spectrum (Neurotypicals). Their different neural wiring affects the way in which they relate to their world, how they communicate with others and how well others communicate with them. Thus, these neural differences can impact on how they manage to function in our predominantly Neurotypical world. So just what are these differences?
People with Autism, especially children, have difficulties understanding other people’s facial expressions and body language, as well as identifying social rules and cues. This is an intuitive process for Neurotypicals, but not so for people on the Autism Spectrum. As 75 percent of human communication is non-verbal, this can cause difficulty with social relationships, both at home and in school and can be very frustrating for all parties involved. In a way, because those on the Autism Spectrum and Neurotypicals process many things differently, it can sometimes seem as if they speak different languages. It is much easier to communicate with those who speak the same language and who have similar ways of thinking, similar beliefs and attitudes. In this situation, both parties are more likely to be “on the same page”. Because of neurological differences between people on the Autism Spectrum and Neurotypicals they think differently. They make different assumptions and judgments, and come to different conclusions, which hampers effective communication and relationship development. Understanding your child’s specific Autism profile, how they think, function and communicate is the first step in raising a child on the Autism Spectrum.
Children on the Autism Spectrum have difficulty understanding how Neurotypicals communicate effectively, simply through everyday exposure to the Neurotypical world. They do not intuitively or instinctively learn the language and culture of Neurotypicals. They also often have difficulties with verbal expression and comprehension. So, children on the Autism Spectrum are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to understand others and communicate their wants and needs effectively, because they have difficulty identifying the many emotions we humans experience, with reading non-verbal social cues and with verbal expression and comprehension. All of these abilities help us determine what is expected of us when we interact with others. Thus, children on the Autism Spectrum often don’t understand what is going on or why and what they should do in social situations. This leaves them feeling confused and anxious about what they should do in social contexts. This can be emotionally overwhelming and is why many children on the Autism Spectrum have more frequent and explosive meltdowns (tantrums) than their Neurotypical peers. Thus, focusing on improving emotional literacy, specific instruction and guidance regarding social cues and rules relevant to their age group, learning appropriate emotion management tools, and having realistic expectations of the child’s current abilities, are all important aspects of raising a child on the Autism Spectrum.
There is also a double bind here for children on the Autism Spectrum. Neurotypicals generally dislike making mistakes. However, people on the Autism Spectrum, particularly children, have an exaggerated fear of making mistakes, to the point that it can become pathological. They will avoid making mistakes at all costs. They would rather reply “I don’t know” than give a wrong response. Thus, when a child on the Autism Spectrum who is already distressed because of difficulties reading and understanding social situations and trying to work out what is expected of them, responds in an inappropriate way, which is then identified by others as a mistake, their initial distress is compounded and they can become inconsolable. It is therefore important for parents to model that everybody makes mistakes and that this is advantageous, as we learn from our mistakes. After all, Thomas Edison made hundreds of mistakes before he managed to invent a functioning light bulb.
People on the higher functioning end of the Autism Spectrum tend to think things through very thoroughly and can focus for long periods of time on topics that interest them but that can seem unimportant to others. They will ‘study’ what interests them. This is a very enviable ability. However, when others want them to disengage and focus on something that is important to them, problems can arise, particularly if the child on the Autism Spectrum has not completed their investigation or activity. Children on the Autism Spectrum are not inherently mentally flexible and need active assistance with developing this as they grow.
Children on the Autism Spectrum are also extra sensitive to sensory stimuli. Louder noises, even a slightly raised voice, can be deafening or frightening to them. They may also be unable to cope with repetitive sounds, such as ticking or whirring sounds, however slight. Yet they can be unaware that their own voices are too loud. It is as if the volume for sounds outside the head is turned up, while the volume for sounds inside the head is turned down. Fragrances and smells, which are pleasant to most, can be overwhelming for children on the Autism Spectrum. They may become agitated and distressed when around certain people or in certain environments. For example, it may be Aunt Jane’s smoking or perfume, rather than Aunt Jane herself, that distresses the child or makes the child reject her.
People on the Autism Spectrum, particularly children, can also be tactile sensitive. They may dislike certain types of fabric and usually prefer soft, well-worn clothes. They often have ‘favourite clothes’, which they insist on wearing at all times. They may also dislike seams or tags on their clothing. Some children on the Autism Spectrum are so tactile sensitive that may even remove their clothing as often as they can, as they simply feel uncomfortable with anything on their skin. Likewise, children on the Autism Spectrum may dislike being touched or hugged. Even a simple hug may feel as if they are being crushed or smothered. On the other hand, they may seek tactile stimulation and want to touch everything or constantly chew things, even their own clothing. They may also actively seek hugs or prefer to wear tight fitting clothes. Desensitization can help reduce such sensitivity and there are strategies and techniques parents can teach their child to make these sensitivities less obvious to others.
There are many other features of high functioning Autism, such as poor muscle tone, poor gross and fine motor control, organization difficulties, obsessiveness and even compulsions and short-term memory problems to name but a few, which can be helped with appropriate professional help and parent input.
There is another key aspect of raising a child on the Autism Spectrum. This is self-care. There is no doubt that raising a child on the Autism Spectrum can be demanding, as it requires a greater understanding of the child and a more focused and active involvement in their development than for most neurotypical children. It can require a greater degree of ‘presence’ than most parents find necessary in raising their neurotypical children.
Consequently, parents of a child on the Autism Spectrum need to actively develop social support networks and plan time for topping up their own physical, mental, emotional and psychological reserves. To do this, parents need to feel okay with taking ‘Autism Spectrum free’ breaks.
There can be many attributes displayed by people on the Autism Spectrum. These may include a strong desire for knowledge, the ability to focus on topics of interest, excellent long-term memory and a great eye for detail, as well as honesty, directness, loyalty and a strong sense of social justice. These and other features of the Autism Spectrum have enabled people on the Autism Spectrum to enrich all our lives in many ways. Living with difference presents challenges, but also offers great rewards. All difference, including that of being on the Autistic Spectrum, challenges us all to look at and accept each other as unique individuals and to more consciously connect with the world around us. That is a great gift indeed.