Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Understanding autism

1 Autism: what have you learned?

Now try the following activity.

Activity 1 Reflect on what you have learned

Allow about 10 minutes

Use the space below to note key things that you have learned about autism so far in the course. You might want to check back to the notes you made for the same exercise in Week 1, Activity 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . In what ways has your understanding changed most? What do you consider to be the most important insights you have gained?

Autism is a neurological developmental disorder that affects how a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to other people. It is characterised by difficulties in three main areas: social and emotional factors, communication and language, and flexibility of thought. People on the autism spectrum typically have difficulty understanding other people's thoughts, intentions and points of view. People with autism may also have difficulties with fine and gross motor skills and quite often have sensory issues as well affecting any, or all, of the senses.

While some children and adults on the autism spectrum have mild to severe intellectual impairment, the intellectual functioning of many others is within, and in some cases above, the normal range. Children on the autism spectrum often attend mainstream schools. Note, however, that academically able children may still have difficulties in coping with everyday situations and may not achieve what they are capable of for this reason.

People on the autism spectrum would often like to make friends and have the company of others, though they may also have difficulties in making this happen.

People with autism often experience deep emotions, while not always understanding these feelings.

There is no evidence for autism being caused by emotional deprivation, and much evidence that biological influences play the major role in autism. Extensive scientific tests have produced no evidence at all to support the claim that the MMR vaccine is influential in causing autistic conditions. In some families, autism spectrum condition may affect more than one person, though this is not always true. Parents and siblings of children on the autism spectrum may also show mild autistic traits, without actually meeting the criteria for an autism spectrum diagnosis. These facts point to genetic factors playing an important role in causing autism. No single gene is implicated in autism. Autism almost certainly involves the combined impact of several genes, and different genes may be involved in autism in different families and individuals.

At present, autism spectrum conditions (ASCs) are still seen as primarily affecting boys, and are very much under recognised in girls, meaning we all too often go under the radar. It is difficult because the signs of autism can be so subtle in girls.

There has been an increase in the numbers of children receiving autism spectrum diagnoses in countries like the UK, but this does not necessarily mean that autism is on the increase. It is quite likely that these changes reflect increased public awareness of autism and developments in how it is diagnosed. If by the age of 18 months a child does not achieve typical development milestones, such as following a parent's gaze, this may be an early sign of autism. But these early signs are not conclusive. To date, autism cannot be reliably diagnosed before the age of 2 years, but improved diagnostic techniques for infants may change this situation.

Many adults on the spectrum are capable of working, given the right working environment. Sadly, however, the majority are unemployed. In general autism is a lifelong condition, though the pattern and severity of symptoms may change in adulthood.
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Here are some key points you may have noted:

Understanding autism should have helped you to gain a wider knowledge of what autism is, and how it affects children and adults across the lifespan. You have learned how the concept of autism has changed, and with it the tools used to diagnose it. You have considered how the impact and experience of autism varies between individuals, and how perceptions of autism may be affected by cultural context. You have looked at explanations of the causes of autism, and at the benefits and drawbacks of different approaches to intervention and support. You have considered how autism may affect families, and looked at the particular challenges of adulthood. You have also learned that autistic people have strengths and skills, and need scope to fulfil their potential.

Now we will reflect further on some key themes, ongoing issues and implications for the future.


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