Autism – What it is, challenges, how to overcome it.

This is a comprehensive article covering the symptoms, causes and challenges of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Most importantly, at the end of the article, we go into detail about the most effective ways to support someone with Autism thrive in academics, and in life.

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Definition

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. People with autism may have difficulty with social cues, struggle to form relationships, and engage in repetitive behaviors. The severity and symptoms of autism can vary widely, which is why it is referred to as a “spectrum.”

Symptoms of Autism

People with autism experience an ongoing pattern of the following types of symptoms:

  • Social interaction difficulties: People with autism may have difficulty with social interaction and communication, including understanding nonverbal cues, such as gestures and facial expressions. They may also have difficulty starting and maintaining conversations, interpreting sarcasm or humor, and expressing their emotions and needs effectively.
  • Repetitive behaviors: People with autism may engage in repetitive behaviors, such as hand flapping, rocking, or repeating the same words or phrases. They may also have strong adherence to routines and rituals, and get upset if these routines are disrupted.
  • Sensory sensitivities: People with autism may be overly sensitive or under-sensitive to sensory stimuli, such as light, sound, touch, or taste. They may also have unusual responses to sensory information, such as covering their ears to block out noise or avoiding certain textures.

DSM-5 Diagnostic criteria for Autism

Here are the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5) criteria for autism.

People with autism show persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts:

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity
  • Markedly abnormal or deficient response to others’ emotions, distress, or social overtures.
  • Failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  • Lack of social or emotional reciprocity.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction:
  • Markedly reduced or absent use of eye contact, facial expressions, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction.
  • Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level.
  • A lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with others.
  • Limited or absent back-and-forth conversation with others.
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.
  • Impairment in the ability to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  • Difficulty in adapting to changing social situations.
  • Repetitive behaviors, interests, and activities:
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech.
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior.
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.
  • Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment.

In addition, the following conditions must be met:

  • The symptoms are present in early childhood (although they may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities).
  • The symptoms limit and impair everyday functioning.
  • The symptoms are not better explained by intellectual disability or global developmental delay.
  • The symptoms are not due to a schizophrenia spectrum disorder, depressive disorder, or bipolar disorder.

Based on the types of symptoms, two kinds (presentations) of autism can occur:

  • Autistic Disorder: if all criteria are met for autism.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS): if there is a severe and sustained impairment in social interaction and communication and restrictive, repetitive behaviors, but not enough symptoms to meet criteria for Autistic Disorder.

Is Autism a learning disability?

Autism is often considered a developmental disorder, but it can also affect learning. Many individuals with autism have difficulty with language and communication, which can impact their ability to learn. Additionally, some people with autism may have co-occurring learning disabilities, such as ADHD, dyslexia or dyscalculia.

In the USA, autism can be determined to be a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), making a student eligible to receive special education services. Individuals with autism can also qualify for accommodations under the ADA and Section 504, if their autism impacts a major life function such as learning.

In the United Kingdom, students with autism can receive specialized support from the school’s SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator).

Causes of Autism

Is Autism Genetic?

The answer, according to a wealth of scientific research, is a resounding “yes.” However, it’s crucial to understand that the genetic aspect of autism is not as straightforward as it might seem.

Autism is not the result of a single gene mutation. Instead, it’s a multifaceted disorder likely influenced by an intricate blend of genetic factors, environmental influences, and potentially other unknown elements. This complex interplay makes the genetic underpinnings of autism a fascinating, albeit challenging, area of study.

Evidence from twin studies provides compelling support for the genetic basis of autism. These studies reveal that if one identical twin is diagnosed with autism, the likelihood of the other twin also having the disorder is significantly high, regardless of whether they are raised in the same or different environments. However, the fact that this concordance isn’t absolute, even among identical twins, underscores the role of environmental factors in the development of autism.

Moreover, the scientific community has identified several specific genes associated with autism. These genes are often involved in critical processes such as brain development, communication between brain cells, or the body’s metabolic responses to certain substances or environmental factors.

Interestingly, many individuals diagnosed with autism have no known family history of the disorder. This observation suggests that de novo mutations—new mutations that occur in the egg or sperm cells—may also contribute to the onset of autism.

In summary, while the genetic influence on autism is significant, it’s only one piece of a larger puzzle. The exact causes of autism remain a subject of ongoing research, and the disorder’s complexity continues to underscore the need for further exploration and understanding.

While genetics play a significant role in the development of autism, a growing body of evidence suggests that various environmental factors, particularly those encountered prenatally, perinatally, and postnatally, can also influence the risk of developing this disorder.

Prenatal Factors and Autism

Prenatal factors refer to influences that occur before birth, during the gestational period. One such factor is maternal exposure to certain chemicals. For instance, studies have shown that exposure to air pollutants during pregnancy, such as heavy metals and particulate matter, can increase the risk of autism in offspring.

Another prenatal factor is advanced parental age. Research indicates that children born to older parents, particularly fathers over the age of 40, have a higher risk of developing autism. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it may be related to genetic mutations that become more common as parents age.

Prenatal infections also play a role. Maternal infections during pregnancy, especially those involving high fever or requiring antibiotic treatment, have been associated with an increased risk of autism. This could be due to the mother’s immune response affecting fetal brain development.

Perinatal Factors and Autism

Perinatal factors, which occur during or shortly after birth, can also contribute to the risk of autism. Complications during birth, such as oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain, have been linked to a higher risk of ASD. Premature birth and low birth weight are other perinatal factors associated with an increased risk of autism.

Postnatal Factors and Autism

Postnatal factors refer to influences that occur after birth. While much of the research has focused on prenatal and perinatal factors, some postnatal factors, such as early childhood exposure to certain chemicals, can also potentially increase the risk of autism.

In conclusion, while the genetic underpinnings of autism are significant, it’s clear that environmental factors, particularly those encountered during the prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal periods, also play a crucial role. Understanding these risk factors can help in the development of strategies to prevent or reduce the risk of autism. However, it’s important to note that having one or more of these risk factors does not guarantee that a child will develop autism, as it is a complex disorder influenced by a combination of many genetic and environmental factors.

The Unique Brain Functioning in Autism

To understand the experiences of individuals with autism, it’s important to understand how their brains function differently.

Brain scans and other imaging techniques have shown that individuals with autism often have differences in brain structure and function compared to those without autism. For example, some areas of the brain may be larger or smaller, or they may have different patterns of connectivity. These differences are thought to contribute to the symptoms of autism, such as difficulties with social interaction and communication, and repetitive behaviors.

Despite these differences, individuals with autism also have strengths and abilities that can be harnessed to help them lead successful and fulfilling lives. With the right support, individuals with autism can build on their strengths and overcome their challenges.

The Challenges of Autism

Autism can impact communication, social interaction, and behavior. While it varies greatly from person-to-person, people with autism often face the following challenges in life:

Social Difficulties

One of the hallmark features of autism is difficulty with social interaction. People with autism may struggle to understand nonverbal cues, make eye contact, engage in conversation, and develop and maintain relationships. These difficulties can result in feelings of isolation, loneliness, and low self-esteem.

Sensory Processing Issues and Autism

Many individuals with autism experience sensory processing difficulties. On the one hand, this means that they may be overly sensitive to certain stimuli such as light, sound, touch, or smells. Or on the other hand they may not respond to stimuli that most people find important. For example, they may not notice if they are being touched or hugged. 

Sensory processing issues can lead to behavioral outbursts, anxiety, and difficulty functioning in daily life.

Communication Struggles and Autism

People with autism may also struggle with communication. Some individuals with autism may not speak at all, while others may have difficulty using and understanding language. They may also struggle with understanding sarcasm, irony, or abstract language. These difficulties can result in frustration, misunderstandings, and difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.

Anxiety and Depression and Autism

Anxiety and depression are common among individuals with autism. The social difficulties, sensory processing issues, and communication struggles they face can lead to feelings of overwhelm, stress, and sadness. In addition, individuals with autism may struggle with change and unpredictability, which can also contribute to feelings of anxiety.

It’s important to remember that every individual with autism is unique and may experience these challenges differently. However, with the right support, individuals with autism can lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Can People with Autism Truly Thrive in School and in Life?

The short answer is yes. With the right support and accommodations, individuals with autism can thrive in school and in life.

For example, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and one of the most well-known figures in modern technology, has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which is a form of autism.

Famous People with Autism

  • Elon Musk, technologist and entrepreneur
  • Lionel Messi, football player
  • Eminem, rapper
  • Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft
  • Daryl Hannah, actress
  • Tim Burton, film director
  • Dan Aykroyd, comedian and actor
  • Satoshi Tajiri, creator of Pokémon

Support and Accommodations

To help individuals with autism thrive, it is important to provide them with the necessary support and accommodations. This can include:

  • Special education programs and interventions that cater to their individual needs
  • Regular communication with teachers, parents, and therapists to monitor progress
  • Social skills training to help with social interactions and communication
  • Assistance with organization and structure to help with focus and attention
  • Neurodevelopmental Program to address sensory processing difficulties

Individuals with autism also benefit greatly from forming connections with others who understand their experiences. This can include joining support groups, participating in social activities, and forming close relationships with friends and family.

Effective Support for people with Autism

Family Support and Training

Families play a crucial role in supporting individuals with autism. Providing families with training and resources can help them understand the condition better, learn effective strategies for managing challenging behaviors, and advocate for their loved ones’ needs. Our online course, How to Understand and Support a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder provides an excellent starting place.

Classroom and Teaching Accommodations

Educational environments play a pivotal role in the development and learning of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). To ensure these students can thrive academically and socially, it’s essential to implement specific accommodations and adjustments in the classroom. These modifications aim to address the unique needs of students with ASD, fostering an inclusive and supportive learning environment.

Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)

One of the most effective ways to support students with ASD is through Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). These plans are tailored to each student’s specific needs and abilities, outlining goals and strategies for their academic and social development. IEPs may include specialized instruction methods, modifications to assignments or tests, and additional support services like speech and language therapy or occupational therapy.

Structured Learning Environment

Students with ASD often thrive in structured environments. This can be achieved by maintaining a consistent daily routine, clearly defining classroom rules, and using visual schedules or charts to outline the day’s activities. Providing clear instructions and breaking down complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps can also be beneficial.

Sensory-Friendly Adjustments

Many individuals with ASD have heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Therefore, creating a sensory-friendly classroom can significantly improve their comfort and focus. This could involve minimizing background noise, providing access to sensory tools like fidget toys, or designating a quiet area in the classroom where students can retreat if they feel overwhelmed.

Social Skills Training

Social interaction can be challenging for students with ASD. Incorporating social skills training into the classroom can help these students navigate social situations more effectively. This could involve role-playing exercises, social stories, or group activities that encourage cooperation and communication.

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology can be a powerful tool for students with ASD. For example, speech-generating devices can aid communication for nonverbal students, while educational software can provide interactive and engaging ways to learn new concepts.

Regular Communication with Parents

Regular communication with parents or caregivers is crucial to ensure consistency between home and school environments. Sharing information about the student’s progress, challenges, and any changes in behavior can help both parties better support the student.

In conclusion, by implementing these accommodations and adjustments, educators can create an inclusive classroom environment that caters to the unique needs of students with ASD. It’s important to remember that every student with autism is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Therefore, ongoing observation, assessment, and flexibility are key to providing effective support.

Neurodevelopmental Support for Autism

The good news is that with proper support, most individuals with autism can significantly enhance their social, life skills and cognitive abilities. This is where our Neurodevelopmental Movement Program comes into play.

Our Neurodevelopmental Movement Program provides individuals with autism a means of strengthening the sensory and cognitive functions that are causing difficulties in their daily life. This approach has been supported by research in the field of neurodevelopment, such as the work of Judith Bluestone in her book “The Fabric Of Autism: Weaving The Threads Into A Cogent Theory”.

At Oxford Specialist Tutors, we utilize the neurodevelopmental approach developed by Judith Bluestone, known as HANDLE®. The HANDLE approach has been shown to be effective in addressing even severe neurodevelopmental issues, such as those seen in individuals with autism.

To support executive function in individuals with autism, it is crucial to first address the foundational functions that support higher-level abilities. These foundational functions include:

  • Tactility: Issues with sensory input, such as discomfort with certain textures or fabrics, can be distracting.
  • Vestibular system: The need for movement and sensory input to maintain attention.
  • Proprioception: A sense of their own body, which contributes to feelings of safety and comfort.
  • Vision: Issues with eye focus and convergence that affect attention and visual perception.
  • Audition: Startle reactions and sensitivity to sounds.
  • Auditory sequencing: The ability to understand and follow verbal instructions.
  • Interhemispheric integration: Effective communication between the two sides of the brain.

These foundational functions support the higher-level executive functions of:

  • Impulse control: Difficulty controlling impulses.
  • Attention switching: Difficulty shifting attention as needed.
  • Connecting ideas: The ability to make connections between ideas and information.

To develop a Neurodevelopmental Movement Program, we start with a comprehensive evaluation of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Based on this evaluation, we provide movement activities that target specific areas of weakness to support overall brain function. Our focus is always on building a solid foundation and working up to enhance executive function and attentional control.

Get the Best Support for Your Child with Autism

If you would like to speak with one of our specialists about the best approach for supporting your child with autism, book a free consultation today.

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