Autism is a spectrum disorder with a collection of symptoms and characteristics relating to impaired social ability, communication skills, behaviours and sensory or motor functions.
These impairments may consist of delay in language or loss of speech, rigid behaviour and difficulty in coping with change, repetition of words and phrases or repetitive movements like hand flipping. There may be fixations or obsessions, repetitive behaviours and ritualised activities, awkwardness or delayed development of fine and gross motor skills. Social cues may be missed and eye contact avoided. Inanimate objects may be preferred to people and there may be difficulty in integrating sensations like touch, pain, smell, taste, light or sound.
Autism, or the newer term Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that usually appears during the first three years of life. The term Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as defined by the current DSM-5, unifies three previously separate but highly related diagnoses: autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).
Most people with autism will exhibit language and social skill difficulties, and may have some form of sensory integration dysfunction or learning difficulties. These impairments can range from mild to severe and there is a great variance in the skill level and behaviour of individuals diagnosed as autistic. People with ASD often find the demands of life overwhelming and experience frustration, anxiety and confusion.
The word autism comes from the Greek word for ‘self’ and describes the fact that sufferers seem to lack interest in other people.
Some characteristics of autism are:
- Insisting on sameness
- Resisting change
- Language difficulties
- Repeating words or phrases
- Prefers to be alone
- Having tantrums
- Difficulty mixing with others
- Poor eye contact
- Not wanting to be cuddled
- Over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
- Over-sensitivity to sound
- Poor motor skills
- Non responsive to verbal cues
Many of the difficulties experienced by autistic people are ascribed to the fact that the sensory systems are often out of balance. Everyday stimuli, such as the sound of a vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer, can be very uncomfortable for autistic people. Often all direct senses, hearing, vision, touch, smell and taste, are either over or under sensitive, putting great demands on the processing in the brain when trying to make sense of the outside world.
When sensory overload occurs, people with autism often ‘tune out’ or ‘switch off’ from the outside world and retract into their own, safer, and easier to deal with, inner world. Most will have a good understanding of language, but may find it difficult to express themselves through language. The acquisition and expression of language is, of course, closely related to hearing and we have found that many people diagnosed with autism have a distorted hearing profile and often are hyper-sensitive to sounds.
In our experience these sensory processing difficulties can often be helped.