Autism is a complex neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate with others, understand and comply with social conventions, grasp abstract concepts, and process physical or emotional sensations from the world around them. They can also be irritable in certain situations, for example in large crowds, and may feel most comfortable when following a routine but can become very distressed if this routine disrupted. However not everyone with autism will have all of these symptoms, and no particular one of these symptoms means that you have autism. Individuals are often diagnosed with autism when they are toddlers.
People with autism don’t look any different from anyone else, so there’s no physical attribute to explain why an autistic person acts in ways that are outside of what most perceive as “normal” behaviour. This can sometimes cause people to see them as “weird” or “strange” and can lead them to be excluded, often because people just don’t understand the condition, despite the fact that most people have heard of it. Bullying is a common occurrence for those with autism.
ASD really is a spectrum. High functioning individuals generally have average or above average intelligence and can be seen as having the ability to integrate more easily into society, while individuals at the other end of the scale may be non-verbal and could require full-time care. There is some debate about the use of these terms at all though. They have been assigned by the “normal” or neurotypical people in society based off the way that people with ASD fit into this neurotypical world.
Despite years of research and much investment, it is still not clear what the causes of autism are. However, underlying genetics and the environment a foetus or baby is exposed to both seem to contribute to its development. Many areas of the brain are affected in people with autism. The brain regions affected and extent of these effects tends to differ from person to person. Within these regions, either extra or reduced connections occur between brain cells.
“The need for resources does not stop after school; autistic children grow up to be autistic adults and still need support.”
In recent years there has been an attempt to move away from the medical and research focus of autism to instead look at the individuals themselves, to help them achieve their full potential despite the difficulties that growing up with autism might bring and be accepted by society as they are.
Adam Harris, founder of AsIAm.ie, a website to inform the public about autism and to provide resources for those affected by autism, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was five years old. He started off attending special schools but later entered mainstream education. He counts himself as lucky to have had early intervention and now feels it is his duty to give back to the rest of the autistic community; he set up the website to do just that. The website has many tools and resources for parents of children with autism, autistic individuals themselves, and for the general public who want to find out a bit more about ASD.
Getting the help required for autism in Ireland can be difficult depending on the resources available in the area. In principle, integrating autistic children into mainstream schools is a good idea, but not all schools are equipped to deal with autistic children. Special needs assistants (SNAs) can be central to the success of a child with ASD in a mainstream school. However dropping numbers of SNAs in schools makes such schooling even more challenging for those with ASD.
The need for resources does not stop after school. Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults and still need support. Unemployment rates are high amongst those with ASD, despite many having excellent qualifications. According to Harris, the most important things that can be done right now to improve the lives of those with autism are getting extra supports from the government to help people with autism achieve their full potential, and also for society to respond to these changes in a positive way. Society needs to be willing to be inclusive of members of the autistic community and know how to include them.
While we may not understand the causes of autism at present, we do need to make an effort to understand the individuals with autism, to listen to their stories and make our society more inclusive.