A Month of Awareness for Autism
April is Autism Awareness Month (also called Autism Acceptance Month). The word “autism” worries many parents, but the condition is nothing to panic over. What many people think they know about autism is exaggerated or completely wrong.
What Autism Isn’t
- Routine childhood vaccination is not a risk factor for developing this condition. This rumor is long disproven, and long overdue for being laid to rest.
- Autism (ASD, or autism spectrum disorder) is not a mental deficiency. The primary characteristic of ASD is difficulty processing sensory input, and many people with autism have higher-than-average skills in other areas.
- Not all people with autism—not even the majority of them—are incapable of speech or of acknowledging the rest of the world. As with addiction and mental illness, individual cases can fall anywhere along a broad functional-to-nonfunctional spectrum.
- This condition needn’t mean that a person will never function independently or make useful contributions to the world. Some of history’s most prominent movers and shakers are believed to have had autism.
- Many people even disagree with classifying autism as a disorder, saying it should be treated simply as a “differently wired” brain type. (Just as the “use your right hand even if you’re left-handed” approach is long discredited.)
Symptoms of Autism
Notwithstanding all the above, most people with autism doneed special help developing social skills, managing their emotions, and/or learning to process incoming information. Anyone displaying symptoms is best referred for clinical assessment.
Severely nonfunctional autism (the “nonverbal” or totally unresponsive type) usually becomes obvious at an early age, but milder cases may go unsuspected for years or even decades. While specific manifestations vary from individual to individual, people with ASD typically exhibit several or most of the following symptoms:
- “Loner” personalities
- Repetitive-motion habits, such as hand-flapping or spinning in circles
- Greater-than-average sensitivity to certain tastes, textures, or other forms of sensory input
- Seeming obsession with, and getting “lost” in, specific topics or projects
- Excessive fondness for routines and order; taking disappointment and interruptions unusually hard
- Quick temper or violent mood swings
- Difficulty with verbal communications—may be puzzled by metaphorical language
- Difficulty establishing close relationships with others—often seeming thoughtless
- Complaints that no one understands or sticks up for them
If not diagnosed when young, people with high-functioning autism may learn to modify their behavior in the interest of being socially acceptable—but, under stress and resentment over having to constantly watch themselves, they may also learn to “compensate” through anxiety disorders, major depression, or substance abuse disorders.
Living on the Spectrum
Autism is a lifelong condition, so while early diagnosis is advisable, any age is the right age to take action. In addition to getting professional advice, a person with ASD—and/or their caretakers—should take the following steps.
Have a Well-Organized Environment and Routine
The more predictable their world, the better people with autism like it. While no life can be completely surprise-proofed, anyone can reduce unwanted interruptions by keeping things in order, prioritizing regular routines, and keeping to-do lists manageable.
Clear the Environment of Overstimulating Elements
People with autism are sensitive to scratchy surfaces (including clothing), background noises, strong odors, and bright lights. It’s easier to function in quiet, uncluttered surroundings.
Know Basic Relaxation Strategies
People on the spectrum are prone to emotional “meltdowns,” and forcing oneself to hold it in is temporarily effective at best. It’s better to physically release the energy by taking slow, deep breaths or simply letting the muscles go limp. A yoga session or guided-meditations app can help.
Accept the Need for Solitude
Even when they learn to establish close relationships, people with ASD will never be social butterflies. They should never be subjected to criticism, let alone demands, that imply there’s something seriously wrong with them for being uncomfortable with hours of chatter.
Focus on Strengths
As with anybody, people on the spectrum function best—and cause the least stress for other people in their environment—amidst opportunities to nurture their own talents and let others do the same. Rather than overemphasizing “you need to learn this … you need to do this better,” let everyone spend more time on what they do best and enjoy most.
Further Help for Autism Issues
Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services offers outpatient autism services including assessments, behavior therapy, and family therapy. If your child (or an adult member of your family) shows signs of autism-related difficulties with learning or relationships, call to learn how we can help.
If you suspect additional brain-function issues such as drug abuse, you can also use our main contact page to submit further details.