April is Autism Awareness Month, and while the condition has received more and more awareness and attention in recent years, there are still many misperceptions. The Centers for Disease Control describes autism spectrum disorders as: “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges."
People with autism spectrum disorders may communicate, behave, interact, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. But what does this look like, exactly?
Autism Is Actually Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism is now more accurately referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, meaning that it's not a one-size-fits-all condition. In fact, there is a wide variation in challenges and strengths from individual to individual, and the condition can range from very mild to very severe.
ASD is a spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. Every person on the autism spectrum will have issues with empathy, social interaction, flexible behavior, and communication. But each person will exhibit these issues differently and to different degrees. The way the symptoms combine will vary greatly from person to person.
ASD occurs in all socioeconomic, ethnic, and age groups, with males being four times more likely to have the condition than females.
What Are the Symptoms?
A few autism-like symptoms does not an autism diagnosis make (necessarily). ASD is diagnosed based on the presence of multiple symptoms that impact a person's ability to form relationships, communicate, explore, play, and learn. In addition, these symptoms and their severity vary widely from person to person.
In general, a person on the autism spectrum disorder will have a hard time with communication, social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and obsessive interests.
Common symptoms include:
- Poor eye contact
- Compulsive behavior
- Repetitive movements
- Persistent repetition of words or actions
- A learning disability
- Speech delay
- Not responding to their name
- Intense interest in a limited number of things
- Problems paying attention
- Difficulties with executive functions
- Being unaware of others' emotions or depression
- By 6 months old, no big smiles or other joyful expressions
- By 9 months old, a lack of back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions
- No babbling by 12 months
- No back-and-forth gestures by 12 months
- No words by 16 months
- No meaningful, two-word phrases by 24 months
- Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age
- Not playing “pretend” games
- Wanting to be alone
- Giving unrelated answers to questions
- Getting upset by minor changes
- Having obsessive interests
- Flapping their hands, rocking their body, or spinning in circles
- Avoiding or resisting physical contact
- Having unusual interests and behaviors
- Having extreme anxiety and phobias, as well as unusual phobias
- Lining up toys or other objects
- Playing with toys the same way every time
For a symptom test, visit Autism Speaks.
How Autism Affects Lives
Some people on the autism spectrum disorder are able to live independent lives, while others may need extra support throughout their whole lives. This can affect every member of the family.
In families, behavior of children with ASD is often a problem, which can add great amounts of stress at home and in public. The relationship of the parents may suffer, siblings may feel extra stress and burden, and social isolation may become an issue. Parents may avoid taking their children out in public to avoid the embarrassment of public meltdowns.
Because of the difficulty in understanding social interactions, some people with autism may struggle with meaningful relationships. They may not understand what is socially appropriate, and small talk may be difficult.
Some people with autism have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal communication. They may seem rude to others, or they may take statements literally when they aren't meant to be taken that way.
Support, intervention, tools, and understanding are crucial for a person and family dealing with autism spectrum disorders.
How ASDs Affect Executive Functioning
Executive function is about a person's ability to act with goals in mind, to ignore unwanted stimuli, to think abstractly, and to problem solve as issues come up. It's the ability to move throughout the day, handling everything that comes your way.
People on the autism spectrum disorder tend to have impaired executive function, which makes planning, organizing, impulse control, and problem solving especially difficult. Things like getting dressed in the morning can present overwhelming challenges, and handling school assignments (knowing what is due, getting it prepared, turning it in, etc.) can be too much.
There's an added challenge: Children without ASDs learn self-care skills through watching and imitating what they see their parents and siblings do. They want to do these things for themselves, and that desire is motivation enough to learn the skills. They grasp the social benefits that come from mastering these skills. People with autism don't have that same social motivation, so learning those skills becomes even more challenging.
Fortunately, there are many ways to teach people with ASDs to improve their executive functioning. Tools and techniques that employ visual and auditory prompts, sequencing, and more can teach people on the autism spectrum disorder to visualize tasks and the best ways to perform them.
Here at Brili, we're happy that our system for managing daily routines has been valuable for many families with children on the spectrum because of its audible and verbal prompts that align with visual sequencing. We're continually learning from experts and families about their needs and improving Brili's design to meet these at every opportunity. If you want to share your ideas with us, we'd really appreciate it if you could leave us a comment below.