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What is autism?

Updated: Jan 15, 2023

What is autism?

Autism (also known as Autism Spectrum Condition or ASC) is a neurodevelopmental condition. It can influence how you socialise, communicate and how you process information from the world around you. It means that you may have preferences for how you interact which may differ from people who do not have autism and it might mean that environments designed for people without autism (i.e., open plan offices, schools, parties) may be hard for you. People with autism learn in different ways compared to non-autistic people.

There are differences in how autism experts understand autism. Some believe that it is a disorder. Others, like us, understand it as a difference that poses challenges, but one that is also associated with strengths. Some people are more profoundly affected by autism, and it can be accompanied by learning disabilities, but most people do not have learning disabilities. Autism is something that you are born with, but experts don’t yet understand its origins. Some research has suggested that genetics are involved. It does not seem to be directly caused by abusive environments or vaccines. More than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. This is likely to be an underestimation.

The belief that autism is a spectrum is commonly held, even amongst the experts who disagree about other things. A spectrum means that people are affected differently by autism. Some people think of the autistic spectrum in a linear way, with people more severely affected at one end, and those at the other end less affected (sometimes referred to a high functioning autism, Asperger’s Syndrome or ‘mild’ autism). We find it unhelpful to view autism in this way for many reasons which we can discuss with you if we make a diagnosis of autism. Dr Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood have written a useful information sheet about why the term is problematic,

Whilst no two people are the same who have autism, there are common areas of difference and challenge that people with ASC can experience. The official diagnostic criteria (DSM) are ‘deficit focused’ in the way that that they are written. We have tried our best to reframe them from a neurodiversity-affirming position.

Common features of autism:

  • Differences in social-emotional reciprocity. This might mean that you don’t always know how to approach people and start off interactions, you can struggle with the social give and take in conversation, you might prefer to keep your emotions or interests to yourself, or you might not always know how to respond when other people share their emotions.

  • Preferring not to use eye contact or finding it uncomfortable, not using many gestures or using gestures in non-typical ways and having a neutral facial expression (sometimes people might struggle to tell how you are feeling from your face alone).

  • Have trouble forming and keeping new friends or the friendships you have might be different for you compared to non-autistic people. Alternatively, you might not be interested in making friends.

  • Preferring sameness and doing the same behaviours repeatedly (hand movements, using particular words, organising objects in certain ways).

  • Becoming highly absorbed and focused on hobbies and topics that interest you.

  • Either processing certain senses very strongly or not noticing them at all (e.g., finding noises, textures, tastes very aversive but not feeling the cold or pain).

What are the strengths associated with autism?

Everyone with autism is different and some of these may apply and others will not. Part of our work would be to explore these with you:

  • Intense strong interests in new hobbies and passionately sharing these with others.

  • Honesty: People can speak freely with you, and you say things how they are.

  • A strong sense of fairness and social justice.

  • Determination: not giving up when you are trying to achieve something.

  • Creative problem solving: not being bound by social norms allows you to think outside the box.

  • Natural affinity with animals, sometimes children.

  • Highly developed visual processing and observation abilities.

  • Motivated by more than what people think of you.


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