Our autism journey part 1: what is autism?

Learning about autism.
Learning about autism. 

When people think of Autism, most who have never been exposed to it tend to think about Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rain Man’ or a child who kicks and screams all day with their hands over their ears and rocking constantly. While this can be how Autism manifests itself, this is actually not the norm.

Autism is in fact a very complex developmental disorder and there is still a lack of understanding about what causes it and why. There are numerous theories and studies, many which focus on a genetic link while some say environmental but for the most part it remains unknown. Some recent studies are suggesting they may have found a chromosomal fracture that is consistent with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and it is known that the brains of individuals with ASD are studied with responsive imaging technology there is a noted difference in which parts of the brain respond to different stimulus. One thing that is certain is that it is not something caused by bad parenting, lack of socialisation or discipline. This is one of the most common misconceptions about ASD, among other more controversial studies which have been disproven.

The key word though is “spectrum”. To quote Wikipedia, “A spectrum is a condition that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary infinitely within a continuum”. What this means is that effectively, everyone on the spectrum is different. There are many similarities across the board but no two people on the spectrum are exactly the same. ASD affects approximately 1 in 100 individuals and no two people with autism have exactly the same symptoms. ASD is also believed to be responsible for a majority of the most brilliant minds of today and throughout history. It is believed that Einstein himself had autism, as well as Isaac Newton and Michelangelo. Autism is known to produce exceeding intelligence and stimulate an obsession with order and structure, thus being common among engineers, scientists, mathematicians, lawyers, artists, musicians and more recently documented – IT professionals. This does not mean every person with autism is gifted, however a high percentage have exceptional skills in one or more areas.

So now that I have given a very brief and basic introduction to autism, why am I writing about it at all? My son has just been diagnosed with moderate/severe Autistic Disorder. I myself am very new to the world of ASD as far as being a parent is concerned despite having friends who have gone through the process and despite knowing a reasonable amount about the disorder and doing my own research, I was still lost when I decided to make the leap and get the diagnosis.

My son is about to turn four. It is a common misconception that you cannot diagnose ASD at such an early age but this is simply not true. The diagnosis process is a little harder and the final result may be one that changes as the child gets older (in my son's case he will likely progress to high functioning in years to come), but it can actually be easier to diagnose earlier as they are less likely to have developed learned responses. Part of what is associated with autism is the inability to react appropriately in certain circumstances. For most these behaviours come naturally and we learn by example but for a child with ASD it never is a natural response, but is often learned eventually. In my son's case for example, for as long as he could walk he has always taken food when he sees it. It can be in a café or play centre, at home, in the pantry or a home he has never been to. Play centres ae usually the worst. He has come back with cans of coke, food and drink bottles. I have found him sitting at a table with other adults and children helping himself while everyone looks around for the terrible mother who allows their child to sit and eat food from strangers.

I was still lost when I decided to make the leap and get the diagnosis.

Thankfully everyone has thus far been understanding, but he is reaching an age where this is becoming less and less acceptable and is carrying through to his pre-preschool class. But no matter what anyone says or does, he has not learned this yet. He does not have any concept of what is acceptable and it is a life lesson his brain will not accept at this stage. As he gets older he will learn, but it will be something he will have to consciously be mindful of rather than just instinctively not helping himself.

Nicole is a moderator on Essential Baby. We will bringing you more of her story over the coming weeks. Comment on this article on the Essential Baby forums.