Understanding Autism

Kids on the spectrum have a great deal to offer.

With a diagnosis rate of 1 in 150 children, it’s no wonder there’s so much coverage of autism in the media today. It’s likely that you know someone who has a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but you probably have no idea what the child and family contend with on a daily basis or how you can help.

Receiving a diagnosis

I know first hand that receiving an autism diagnosis is simply devastating for parents. When my son was diagnosed with ASD, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Although my son is happy, healthy and well adjusted now, at the time, I really didn’t know where we would end up.

Parenting a child on the spectrum presents complex challenges that leave people feeling bewildered, incompetent and exhausted. In addition, kids on the spectrum may not behave in “acceptable” ways – they may have outbursts, rigidity, and or unusual behaviours. Raised eyebrows from others can make these parents feel even less adequate.

There are many theories on what causes autism. Researchers have evidence indicating that genetics are a factor. Once identified, a child is usually given one of two typical diagnoses – autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. In children diagnosed with autism, speech is either delayed or absent up to a certain age. On the other hand, children diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome often have an extensive vocabulary at a surprisingly young age. One little boy I work with recites the alphabet backwards within a few seconds; he is not yet four.

Five areas affected

Typically, autism comes with a “triad of impairments” – communication issues, behaviour difficulties and social challenges. It’s not the autism itself that causes problems, it’s the wiring of the brain. These five areas are always affected in some way, shape or form:

  1. Flexible thinking: the ability to mentally “stick handle,” to generate best-fit solutions in any given situation, or to think on your feet
  2. Experience sharing: difficulty maintaining the “dance” of reciprocal communication, 

understanding how to “link minds” with others
  3. Episodic memory: using past experiences to navigate future, successful outcomes
  4. Self awareness: taking stock of one’s position in any given situation, evaluating one’s behaviour, and modifying it to suit the situation
  5. Dynamic appraisal: on a moment-to-moment basis, determining what information in the environment is important, and determining what to do with it – ignore it, focus on it or act on it

Every child faces challenges in today’s world, but can you imagine dealing with these difficulties on top of everything else? It’s no wonder that these brave little souls will often withdraw, demonstrate frustration or choose predictable, “safe” activities to try to calm their inner turmoil.

Improvement possible

Despite their predicament, children with autism are often remarkable, always interesting, and most certainly have a great deal to offer our world. Kids on the spectrum often have great talents in the arts and in mathematics. Numerous individuals with autism have made ground-breaking contributions to society. Think Glenn Gould, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Albert Enstein – all of whom are thought to have had autism or autistic traits.

The good news for kids with autism? Science has proven that even as adults, our brains are capable of developing new neural pathways, and more extensive neural connectivity. Children’s brains are even more “plastic.” This means that our brains are capable of changing over time. In essence, with the right intervention, we can improve quality of life for children with autism.

What can you do to help your children understand autism? Remind them that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity. Explain that every one of us has quirks, strengths, and obstacles. After all, if we were all “normal,” what would make us unique as individuals? Like all of us, children and adults with autism long for friendship and camaraderie – help your children see the gifts within all people, no matter what their differences. Their lives will be enriched as a result.

Author: Sue Simmons

Sue Simmons is a certified RDI® program consultant at Equinox Autism Consulting Ltd. She can be reached at equinox@persona.ca.

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