This week is World Autism Awareness week, with countries around the globe learning about and discussing this neurological spectrum condition. Autism was first researched and considered in the 1940s by the pioneers Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, although it would be another 40 years before this work would be translated and published, and research could gain momentum. Even by the 1980s, however, there was still a lot to learn about the condition, with many people confusing definitions of autism with those of psychosis or other mental and physical illnesses.
Nowadays, the autism spectrum is a very complex diagnostic system, with a diagnosis taking many factors such as senses and communication into consideration. It is now thought that autism isn’t so much an illness, but rather simply a different way for our brains to work, which comes with as many advantages as there are issues to overcome. We’ve put together 10 facts that you may not have known for this World Autism Awareness Week, to show just how far research and knowledge has come in this field, and indeed how far we still have to go.
In previous times many medical professionals, and therefore society as a whole, thought autism was either partially or wholly down to a child’s upbringing. We now know that autism is in fact a difference in the way a brain processes information, and this is something we are born with.
Similarly to people thinking there was an external cause for autism, we used to think that some children could cease to be on the autistic spectrum as they grew and developed. However, an autistic brain processes information in different ways, and this is not changed through development. Many children go through therapy in order to help them cope in a society of people who mostly are not autistic, and therefore appear to be coping and could be seen as not having autism any more. The truth is if you are born with autism, you will always have autism, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing.
Autism is no longer seen as a disease or condition which needs to be cured. It is simply a different way of thinking, and this in fact comes with its advantages as well as disadvantages. People on the autistic spectrum may find planning, change, and busy environments difficult to cope with, but they also can have heightened senses, higher IQs and some incredible abilities which are not possible for those not on the spectrum.
A common misconception is that autism will definitely be picked up when you are a child, and that adults who have never been considered for an autism assessment have missed their chance. Due to ever developing research and definitions of autism, particularly for women with autism, it is thought that there are a lot of people who simply weren’t diagnosed but could be on the autistic spectrum. Although not an illness, there are many things to help those with autism cope in a world they feel is challenging, so getting a diagnosis can help a lot. More diagnoses will also in turn help further research into autism, as there is still a lot to learn.
A program on Channel 4 in the UK this week focused on a survey of 750,000 undiagnosed people, who all took a basic level test to determine whether they might have autism. A staggering 87,000 participants reached the marker for someone who may have autism, and although not a formal diagnosis, this gives an indication that autism is very under-diagnosed in the UK. The program also helped two individuals who suspected they were on the spectrum to explore whether they had autism and get an official diagnosis.
That is, more men are diagnosed with autism than women, at a rate of 5:1. Recent studies, however, including the one mentioned above by Channel 4, suggest that perhaps women are simply better at masking their autism in society and therefore go untested or undiagnosed. We’re unsure why this, and more research is encouraged in this area to both determine the reason and better diagnose women.
Stimming is short for ‘self stimulatory behaviour’ and involves repeating an action or movement over and over in order to stimulate the senses in a specific way. All people do it on a small scale, be that biting your nails or jigging your leg, but those on the autistic spectrum will do this more obviously to calm themselves when feeling overwhelmed. It’s a bit like closing yourself off from something that is overwhelming in order to focus on the calming repetitive nature of a chosen movement. To outsiders, stimming can look alarming and even dangerous, but in most cases, if the person is not hurting themselves physically, this process is actually very helpful.
There are so many different types and presentations of autism that we simply cannot fit it onto a simple linear spectrum. Autism involves hundreds of factors, including how we process change, social interaction, basic communication, and forward planning, amongst others, and the infinite combination of these factors makes up the spectrum.
It’s a phrase you’ve probably heard from someone, and another common misconception. Diagnosis is complicated and many of us can empathise with and even experience some of the signs of an autistic person, such as social anxiety or even heightened senses. It is a combination of these factors, however, that leads to a person receiving an official diagnosis, and we now know that it is an actual difference in brain activity. We are either autistic or not autistic. Those who have autism are on the spectrum somewhere, and those who are not are not considered to be on the spectrum.
Over the years there have been many terms for those on the autistic spectrum, and with such a complex condition it is only natural to have some sub-categories which highlight typical presentations of the different factors. Those with Asperger’s syndrome specifically are often associated with an above average intelligence and capacity for learning, alongside difficulties in social situations and reading facial expressions or tone. This is very similar to other diagnoses of autism, and some people think it should all be placed under one diagnosis. Others, however, see Asperger’s or similar diagnoses as a large part of their identity, and do not want to lose this definition. For now, all conditions associated with autism are placed under the umbrella term of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), but many still use different names and sub-categories when diagnosing and talking about autism.
We hope you learnt something new this World Autism Awareness Week, and hope that perceptions of those with autism continues to change for the better, as we learn more and more about it. There is still a lot of research to be done into the subject of autism, and even more for us to be better at diagnosing the condition.
If you are concerned about anything mentioned in this blogpost, or think you or a loved one may be on the autistic spectrum, you can place any symptoms into the Isabel Symptom Checker and discuss the results with your doctor, who may be able to refer you to get an official diagnosis.