Right Start

Understanding Autism

Every individual has a unique and meaningful contribution to make to society. Autism is part of who a person is.

What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability. It commonly presents in early childhood; however, some individuals may not be diagnosed later in life.

ASD is seen on a continuum, some individuals may have mild presentation, living independent lives, while others may have more severe disabilities requiring continued support and care, it is a disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum.

Autism is not considered an illness or disease, and therefore it cannot be cured. However, getting the right treatment and support can help improve outcomes.

Characteristics of Autism

Characteristics of autism include;

  • Communication difficulties
  • Sensory sensitivity or processing difficulties
  • Difficulties relating to others
  • Difficulties understanding feelings and emotions
  • Restricted or repetitive behaviors 
  • Reliance on routine
  • Difficulties with flexibility of thought
  • Narrow or intensely focused interests

Being autistic

Understanding Autism can be overwhelming to parents and other family members, but at Right Start Inc we want to help and teach you what autism is. 

Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways. Like all people, autistic people have their own strengths and weaknesses. Below is a list of some difficulties autistic people may share, including the two key difficulties required for a diagnosis. 

Social communication and social interaction

Communication can be a challenge for some individuals with autism. For instance, they may find it hard to read body language, understand peoples’ emotions or process language. 

We all use a mix of verbal, gesture, body language and more to communicate. For some people, augmented and alternative communication methods help them to communicate.

Repetitive behavior

Routines can help reduce anxiety for people with autism. For example, using the same route to go to work every day helps the person feel in control. Changes to routine, big or small, can be hard to process.

Where possible, planning ahead can help reduce any confusion or anxiety that the disruption may cause. 

People with autism may also have repetitive movements such as hand flapping or making sounds. These are often calming for the individual when they feel stressed.

Sensory difficulties 

People with autism can experience under- or over-sensitivity to sounds, touch, smells, pain, light or temperature. Sounds or smells that many people block out can be over-stimulating and cause stress. 

It may also be under-stimulating and a person might look to increase their sensory input by turning the volume up or getting closer to smells. 

Behaviors that challenge

When stress or anxiety build up it can lead to challenging behaviors or “meltdowns”. This may take on many forms including screaming, kicking, running away or ceasing communication.  

These behaviors are often the result of an individual being overwhelmed and can occur when a person is finding it difficult to communicate. It is important to understand why challenging behaviors may arise so that the right support can be given to address them. 

Meltdowns and shutdowns

When everything becomes too much for an autistic person, they can go into meltdown or shutdown. These are very intense and exhausting experiences.

A meltdown happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioral control.  This loss of control can be verbal (e.g., shouting, screaming, crying) or physical (e.g., kicking, lashing out, biting) or both. 

Meltdowns in children are often mistaken for temper tantrums and parents and their autistic children often experience hurtful comments and judgmental stares from less understanding members of the public. 

A shutdown appears less intense to the outside world but can be equally debilitating. Shutdowns are also a response to being overwhelmed, but may appear more passive – e.g., an autistic person going quiet or ‘switching off’.

One autistic woman described having a shutdown as: ‘just as frustrating as a meltdown, because of not being able to figure out how to react how I want to, or not being able to react at all; there isn’t any ‘figuring out’ because the mind feels like it is past a state of being able to interpret.’

Over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch

Autistic people may experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colors, temperatures or pain. For example, they may find certain background sounds like music in a restaurant, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting.

This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. Many autistic people prefer not to hug due to discomfort, which can be misinterpreted as being cold and aloof.

Many autistic people avoid everyday situations because of their sensitivity issues. Schools, workplaces and shopping centers can be particularly overwhelming and cause sensory overload. There are many simple adjustments that can be made to make environments more autism-friendly. 

Highly focused interests or hobbies

Many autistic people have intense and highly focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong. Autistic people can become experts in their special interests and often enjoy sharing this specialized knowledge. 

Like all people, autistic people gain huge amounts of pleasure from pursuing their interests and see them as fundamental to their wellbeing and overall happiness.

Being highly focused helps many autistic people do well academically and in the workplace. However, they can also become so engrossed in particular topics or activities that they may neglect other aspects of their lives.