Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. This means that the development of the brain and wider nervous system in people with autism differs from typical neurodevelopment.
How does autism affect people?
Because of this difference in development, the way in which people with autism think and process information – their cognitive style – differs to that of the majority of people within the typical population.
The four dimensions of autism
In particular, this difference of cognitive style affects:
• the ability to communicate effectively
• the ability to secure and maintain effective relationships
• the ability to think and act flexibly
• the perception and management of sensory stimuli
In understanding and responding to the specific needs of people with autism, it is therefore these four areas of developmental difference that are our focus. At Autism Wessex, we call these the four dimensions of autism.
As a spectrum disorder the extent of the developmental difference in the four dimensions is wide ranging – from very subtle to very severe.
What is the relationship between autism, intellectual impairment (learning disability) and mental illness?
The majority of people with autism are in the normal range of intellectual functioning (a typical IQ) but a significant number also have an intellectual impairment (a low IQ or learning disability).
People who experience more subtle differences in the four dimensions and who have typical intellectual functioning, may be described as having Asperger syndrome or as having high functioning autism.
Those with an additional intellectual impairment are likely to be more severely affected in the four dimensions. People with autism are vulnerable to mental health problems such as high stress and anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and mood disorders.
Experiencing such mental illness can compound the difficulties and challenges arising from having autism.
How many people have autism?
Autism affects about 1% of the population and four or five times as many males as females.
What is the cause of autism?
The cause of autism is unknown but there is strong evidence of genetic links and a range of possible organic and environmental triggers.
Is autism a disability?
Autism and intellectual impairment will usually lead to life-long disability but the extent to which someone is disabled depends on a complex interaction between the person and the environment.
Generally, environments are populated by and designed around the needs of the neuro-typical population with its broadly shared cognitive style. All people with autism will therefore experience difficulties in negotiating the neuro-typical world and even those with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism will experience some degree of disability.
Having additional intellectual impairment and/or mental illness will compound the difficulties in interacting with the world and lead to greater levels of disability. However, the disabling impact of autism and intellectual impairment can be reduced by effective and appropriate interventions, education and support. Associated mental illness can be medically treated and those symptoms can be reduced or cured.
How should we respond to autism?
People with autism have skills and strengths that, given the opportunity, enable them to make a positive contribution to their local community and to wider society. In seeking to improve the lives of people with autism, our approach, that is parents, carers and professionals should be two-fold.
Firstly, and focusing on the four dimensions, to provide people with autism with the necessary skills, strategies and supports to best interact with the world.
Secondly, to seek to make the world an easier place for people with autism to negotiate and within which they may make a positive contribution.
Social interaction and communication are two-way processes and the neuro-typical population finds it as difficult to understand people with autism as people with autism can find to understand it. Alongside equipping people with autism to understand the neuro-typical population, we have a responsibility to promote a better understanding of autism and to modify neuro-typical communication and environments to suit the style of those with autism if mutually respectful and effective relationships are to be achieved.