This is the obligatory "what is autism?" page that all websites like this one seem to have.
The plain truth though, is that nobody really knows exactly autism is. The cause and mechanisms
haven't been discovered yet, but a lot of researchers are
working very hard for a better understanding.
As such, it's not surprising that people's perceptions of autism are
diverse and, at times, conflicting. There are fierce debates about the incidence of autism, its "curability",
whether it is one condition or many, what the best treatments are,
and even whether it should be called a disorder at all.
Rather than re-invent the wheel, we suggest you browse some of the following links to definitions
of autism. You'll find disagreements and contradictions between them but on aggregate they probably give
a reasonably balanced view.
We can also gain some idea of what it's like to have
autism from the accounts of adults on the autistic spectrum. Some of these can be found from
our list of links to websites by people on the ASD
spectrum, which is well worth a browse.
the mythical "typical" child with autism
The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that there is very wide variation in the symptoms
and severity of Autism, hence the fact that it is referred to as a "spectrum" disorder. It is therefore
very difficult to describe a "typical" child with autism. For example, the common sensory abnormalities include
both hyper and hypo sensitivities. Thus some children (like my son Kit)
love rough-and-tumble play, big squeezes, and hardly seem to feel pain. But you're
equally likely to meet kids who are hypersensitive to pressure and pain to the extent that
they don't like to be touched or even wear clothes. The time may come when we recognise autism as
a number of different conditions, as we already do with Aspergers
syndrome (where language delay and learning difficulties are less of a problem, but other difficulties remain).
No doubt research will reveal the answer eventually.
Autism seems to have become much more prevalent over the past few decades. Better diagnosis and wider
awareness have undoubtedly contributed to this, but by most estimates the increase is far too large to
for this to be the only factor. There's a good summary available
here from the University of Sunderland's
Autism Research Unit.
The increase, if it exists, is very puzzling. There are some very good reasons for thinking that genetics
is involved in the cause of autism. There's a very good introduction to the probable role of genetics in
autism and the current state of research at the exploring autism
website. But it is difficult to explain how a relatively large and rapid increase
could be caused by genetic mechanisms. Conversely, the fact that increases are reported worldwide makes it
unlikely that some local environmental factor is the culprit, though many things have been blamed.
Only science and abundant high-quality data can give us the true picture.
Tony's Analogy: "like learning a foreign language"
A friend whose son has Asperger's syndrome made this interesting analogy, noting that very small children
normally pick up language with astonishing ease. In bilingual households they almost invariably pick up
both languages without difficulty. But most adults find that learning a foreign language is
extremely hard work. Perhaps children with autism learn language like adults rather than like their peers?
If so then we shouldn't be surprised if it takes a little more effort and time.