How to Understand Autism

Three Parts:Doing ResearchDiscarding MisconceptionsUnderstanding the Symptoms

Autism is a very complex developmental disability that affects different people in different ways. It can be difficult to understand such a nuanced topic, especially with all the conflicting information about autism out there. With the increasing amounts of autism diagnoses these days, it's more important than ever to have a good understanding of it and know what autism truly is, and know how to help those who are autistic - whether it's yourself, a family member, or a friend.

Part 1
Doing Research

  1. Image titled Young Woman Reads.png
    Read the DSM-5 definition. This manual will give you a general sense of what autism is like, although it does not go into great detail. It can be a helpful starting point in understanding the basics of autism.
    • The definition does not completely fit everybody - every autistic person is different! Some autistic people may have problems with sensory processing, while others don't. Some autistic people communicate nonverbally or with AAC, while others communicate verbally (and may have a rather large or sophisticated vocabulary for their age!). If you know an autistic person who does not fit all the diagnostic criteria, don't assume that they're lying or "faking it" - autism is a spectrum disorder, so not everyone has every piece of it.
  2. Image titled Woman Says No to Autism Awareness.png
    Watch your sources carefully. Not every source is credible, and not every source that claims credibility is a good one. Articles written without feedback from any autistic people may get things wrong. Autism Speaks is an example of an organization that spreads inaccurate information (e.g. the myth that vaccines cause autism).
    • Parents of autistic children or teens may get information wrong, as well. Remember, just having a close relation to an autistic person doesn't make the person an expert on autism! Particularly, if the parent complains about how their autistic child makes it so they can't do anything they enjoy, how they wish their child wasn't autistic, or anything similar, they probably don't have a good idea of what autism actually is.
  3. Image titled Autism Articles on Blog.png
    Read what autistic people have to say. Autistic people have lived with autism for all their lives, and have the clearest picture of what is going on inside their heads. Their personal accounts can give you a glimpse into the minds of real autistic people.
    • Judy Endow MSW, Cynthia Kim, Amy Sequenzia, Ido Kedar, Amelia Baggs, Emma Zurcher Long, and Kassiane Sibley are some examples of autistic writers.
  4. Image titled Screenshot ASAN.png
    Consult organizations run by autistic people. ASAN, the Autism Women's Network, and others have writers who know a lot about autism. These organizations can help with many things - whether it's dispelling rumors about autism, advertising any events that are in support of autism acceptance, or simply giving a perspective on something.
    • These organizations may talk about painful subjects from time to time, such as abuse of autistic or other disabled people. If you feel like you're unable to handle hearing about those kinds of subjects, avoid them.
  5. Image titled Transgender Guy Thinking.png
    Consider the "types" of autism. Autism was previously sorted into subcategories, including PDD-NOS, Asperger Syndrome, and "classic" autism. Since the distinctions between each category were unclear, the DSM-5 now simply uses the label "Autism Spectrum Disorder."
    • Not everyone has dropped the usage of Asperger Syndrome, so you may hear people talking about Aspergers rather than autism.
  6. Image titled Man Consoles Teen Boy.png
    Discern between autism and comorbid conditions. Autism rarely comes alone, so your or your loved one's symptoms may not be caused only by autism. Research comorbid conditions, so that you can distinguish between autism and other things.
    • Sensory Processing Disorder (very often co-occurs with autism)
    • Epilepsy/seizures
    • Gastrointestinal issues
    • Anxiety disorders
    • Depression
    • ADHD
    • Oppositional Defiant Disorder
    • Dyspraxia

Part 2
Discarding Misconceptions

  1. Image titled Guy on Computer.png
    Dismiss startling headlines about an autism epidemic. Autism diagnostic criteria have improved over time, leading to more people receiving an accurate diagnosis. Studies show that the rate of autism in children is about the same as the rate in adults,[1] and differences in survey question wording may also suggest higher rates.[2]
    • Keep in mind that autism is not a disease; a disability is not an epidemic. The term "epidemic" is most often used to describe diseases;[3] saying that there is an "autism epidemic" can be hurtful to autistic people.
  2. Image titled Boy Using AAC Button.png
    Don't confuse "developmental disability" with "developmental halt." Autistic people learn and grow, just like non-autistics do. They simply learn at a different, often lopsided, pace. An autistic girl will be much more capable at age 14 than she was at age 4, and even more capable at age 24.
    • Don't listen to people who say "Your autistic child will never _____." There is no way to know this. People can only take things step by step.
  3. Image titled Sly Woman Lies to Innocent Woman.png
    Don't be fooled by tales of vaccines. Autism is very clearly not caused by vaccines.[4][5][6][7] Despite celebrity claims, the single study that found a link was found to be fraudulent.[8][9] Its author Andrew Wakefield was attempting to market his own vaccine, so he skewed the data, hoping to profit. The study was retracted, his license was revoked,[10][11] and many studies have proven him wrong.
  4. Image titled Cheerful Boy and Therapist Write Bedtime Ideas.png
    Reject the idea that poor parenting causes autism.[12] The "refrigerator mother" myth, which suggested that aloof mothers caused autism, has been debunked.[13] Autistic people can be born to wonderful parents as well as terrible ones. Many parents love their autistic children dearly.
    • On the flip side, autism will not be erased by the efforts of a "warrior mom/dad," a parent who pours all their energy into various therapies and treatments.
    • Negligent parents may lead to Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), which shares some traits with autism, but is completely different. Do not mistake RAD for autism.
  5. Image titled Man and Woman Using Sign Language.png
    Don't make assumptions about intelligence. Some autistic people have enormous IQs, while others have severe intellectual disabilities. Many autistic people are around average intelligence. Just like non-autistic people, autistic people exist at all levels of intelligence.[14][15]
    • An autistic person will not automatically be an expert on math or science, even if they have a high IQ. Autistic people being mathematical thinkers is a stereotype and is not always true; some autistic people are bad at mathematical or scientific topics, but they can be incredible at other ones (such as language).
  6. Image titled Man and Autistic Girl Laughing.png
    Ignore the prophets of doom. Some autism groups use scare tactics to fundraise, and this may paint an overly negative picture of autism (e.g. claiming that 80% of parents divorce, which is clearly untrue).[16] Autistic people are capable of smiling, having fun, and loving their families.
    • Autistic people can live a happy life and be autistic at the same time. Being autistic is not a sentence to a dark, gloomy life.
  7. Image titled Girl with Down Syndrome Enjoys Nature.png
    Remember that autistics aren't robotic. Some autistic people may appear unfeeling—but this may be due to thoughtfulness, alexithymia (difficulty understanding emotions), or withdrawal due to being overwhelmed. Some autistic people describe themselves as having "too much empathy,"[17][18] while others qualify that they struggle to understand others' thoughts, but feel them very intensely.[19]
    • Autistic people often feel very distressed when they see someone else upset.[20]
  8. Image titled Woman Speaks Nicely to Man.png
    Discard the myth of violence. Autistic people are less likely to commit violent crimes than the general population is,[21] and they are more likely to be victims of bullying and violence.[22][23][24] If an autistic person is acting violent or aggressive, it may be due to an underlying issue, not their autism.
    • Autistic children may act aggressive due to abusive therapies or built-up frustration, especially if they can't speak and haven't been given AAC. This is a panicked self-defense response, and is not premeditated.[25][26]
  9. Image titled Man Hugs Sad Boy.png
    Recognize that autistic people do care about others' feelings. Autistic people feel greater distress than non-autistics do, when they see someone who is upset. However, they are less able to understand what others are thinking.[27] This means that autistic people may be socially clueless, and do something upsetting without realizing it.
  10. Image titled Diverse Group of People.png
    Recognize that there is no one way to "look autistic." Despite the 8-year-old white boy stereotype, autistic people can be of any age, gender, and race. Autistic people are a diverse group.[28]
    • Autism is lifelong. An autistic child will grow into an autistic adult.[29][30] Anyone who claims they can cure autism is not being honest with you.
    • Not everyone is diagnosed in childhood. Some may be diagnosed as teens or adults. Sometimes, they are diagnosed after their children are diagnosed.
    • Autism tends to be overlooked in people who are not white and male. Doctors tend to focus on how symptoms typically present in white males, so diagnosis may be harder for girls[31][32] and people of color.[33][34]

Part 3
Understanding the Symptoms

  1. Image titled Autistic Boy Feigns Eye Contact While Talking to Woman.png
    Recognize dislike or fear of eye contact. Studies show that autistic people feel afraid when making eye contact,[35][36] and autistic people report it as painful and distracting.[37][38][39] Many look somewhere else when listening - it doesn't mean that they're ignoring the speaker.
  2. Image titled Relaxed Woman Talking.png
    Consider idiosyncratic speech patterns. Autistic people may speak with an unusual tone, volume, speed, and/or pitch. They may repeat words, phrases, or songs (echolalia). Some may speak in a highly abstract and artistic manner.
  3. Image titled Girl Reading Book In a Tree.png
    Notice special interests. Autistic people may have one, two, or more deep passions at a time. An autistic person can spend a very long time engaged with this topic, and can recite a long "infodump" of information to others.
    • Special interests can fade, change, and be created over time. Sometimes, an autistic person may go through some time with no special interests.
    • An autistic person feels very passionate about their interest. They may become especially talented in it. Parents can encourage the development of the interest.
    • Sometimes, special interests can be people, whether they are romantic interests or not.[40] The person can be a celebrity or someone that the autistic person actually knows. The autistic person may be interested in learning everything about the person, and be devastated if the two knew each other and they lose contact.
  4. Image titled Girl Points in Confusion.png
    Recognize concrete use and interpretation of language. Autistic people are often sincere, saying exactly what they mean, and expecting others to do so too. They may struggle with understanding figurative language and sarcasm, and knowing whether someone is joking.
  5. Image titled Illustrated Schedule.png
    Consider the need for routine. Autistic people can become overwhelmed with unpredictability and too many decisions. Providing a clear routine can help keep daily tasks from becoming too taxing. An autistic person will often become distressed and overwhelmed if their routine is disrupted.
  6. Image titled Homework Completion List.png
    Keep executive dysfunction in mind. An autistic person may struggle with some or all aspects of executive function. Executive dysfunction is a complicated issue, and it includes...
    • Disorganization
    • Poor impulse control
    • Difficulty getting started on a task
    • Focusing trouble
    • Difficulty self-monitoring
  7. Image titled Disabled Man Writing About Boy.png
    Look for lopsided development.[41][42] Autistic people may learn different things at different speeds, such as learning to read chapter books before learning to speak in sentences. Their social development may be particularly slow.
    • Some autistic people learn to speak late. Some are unable to speak.
    • Some autistic children meet their milestones later than average, leading to a diagnosis. Others meet them early, or out of order. Some meet them in order, and may be diagnosed later in life.
    • Teens and young adults may also meet later-life "milestones" later, such as driving, getting a job, or moving out.
  8. Image titled Autistic Girl Faces Shadows.png
    Consider difficulty with social skills. Autistic people may find it hard to start and maintain conversation, read body language, understand what other people are thinking, make friends, and handle large groups of people. Social situations can be embarrassing or awkward for an autistic person.
    • Autistic people may not pick up unwritten social rules. They may need to be taught explicitly.
    • Introversion is common with autism. Some autistic people are content with few friends, while others want to make more friends but don't know how. Like other skills, social skills can be learned and practiced.
    • Sometimes, autistic people can be treated poorly by their peers due to the problems they have with social skills. Misunderstanding figurative language, saying inappropriate things at bad times, not understanding when somebody needs comfort or to be left alone, and so forth can cause an autistic person to have trouble with social relationships.
  9. Image titled Mom Smiles while Autistic Daughter Stims.png
    Watch for unusual movements. Autistic people may walk on their toes and stim, i.e., make fidgeting motions that may be subtle or unusual. Examples of stimming include flapping hands, tapping feet, playing with hair, rocking, humming, and flicking fingers. Stimming can help autistic people feel calm and focus.
    • Stimming should not be stopped entirely. If an autistic person's stim is distracting you or others, or is inappropriate for the situation, it's okay to ask them to switch to another stim, but don't ask them to stop stimming entirely, and never restrain them if they won't stop stimming. Preventing someone from stimming can lead to psychological harm.[43][44]
  10. Image titled Boy Covering Ears.png
    Consider sensory issues. Most autistic people also have Sensory Processing Disorder, in which some of their senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, vestibular, proprioceptive, interoceptive) are over- or under-responsive. They might cover their ears when they hear a vacuum, pinch their nose at the smell of spice, or rub things because they love the texture.
    • Autistic people can be both hyposensitive and hypersensitive to sensory input. An autistic person may love noise and have headphones on all day, but may not eat certain foods because of how they feel and taste.
  11. Image titled Shutdown.png
    Recognize meltdowns, shutdowns, and sensory overload. These happen when an autistic person becomes overwhelmed by stress, and can no longer cope. These are not done on purpose; meltdowns, for example, are very different than "throwing a fit". The autistic person should be helped away from the situation, rather than punished or scolded.
    • Meltdowns look similar to a tantrum, but are not done on purpose. They may involve crying, screaming, lashing out, throwing oneself on the floor, et cetera.
    • Shutdowns happen when an autistic person's brain can't process things, and they may stop being able to do tasks like cleaning up, talking, driving, et cetera. The autistic person may become very passive, and look sad or emotionless.
    • Sensory overload is caused by an overwhelming environment. The only cure is time and a quiet place to rest.
  12. Image titled Happy Autistic Man and Woman.png
    Recognize that each autistic person is unique. One autistic person may not have every symptom on a list, and this is normal. Each autistic person will have their own individual personality, abilities, and needs. Don't assume that autistic people are "all the same", because they're not - and meeting multiple autistic people will prove that to you!

Sources and Citations

Show more... (41)

Article Info

Categories: Autism Spectrum