What is Autism?

If your child is struggling to communicate, then autism may be one of the topics that you want to find out more about. There’s a lot of scary and negative descriptions of autism on the internet, which is unfortunate and unnecessary.

Autism is fundamentally a difference in how someone experiences and interacts with the world around them. If you’re not autistic then an autistic person’s behaviours may be hard to understand. That doesn’t mean that we have to view all these differences as a problem or a disorder.

In this video, I talk through the main features of autism without the doom and gloom.

If you search up a diagnostic definition of autism, you may come across mention of the ICD-10 and the DSM-5. These are the two big diagnostic manuals that aim to classify and detail every medical condition out there.

The main features of autism that these diagnostic manuals describe are the following:

  1. difficulties with social interaction and communication
  2. restrictive and repetitive behaviours, activities and interests.

We can describe these features without the negative perspective:

  1. A difference in social interaction and communication.

Research on the double empathy problem is really important here. We used to think that autistic individuals struggled to understand how other people are thinking and feeling. We would talk about ‘poor theory of mind’. What we know now is that this ability to empathise is actually a two-way difficulty. It’s almost a culture clash. Whilst autistic people can struggle to read the emotions and thoughts of a neurotypical people, it goes the other way too. Research shows that neurotypical people can struggle to understand the emotions and thoughts of autistic people. We’re also learning that this social communication challenge that we describe, isn’t so evident when autistic people are socialising together.

I acknowledge that lots of autistic children that I meet as a speech therapist do struggle to communicate. A relevant point here is that we need to focus on facilitating successful multimodal communication – giving them access to every tool available to help them communicate for all kinds of reasons.

  1. The ability to focus deeply on something of interest.

A key point of relevant research here is the theory of monotropism. This describes a high level of focus and attention on specific things. Some autistic people will describe a strong pull towards areas of interest, can make it hard to shift attention to a different activity, to stop what you’re doing or talking about to shift topic or listen to someone else. Monotropism can explain the pull to give lots of detail in their talk. I meet children who can find it hard to give a one-phrase summary of a story, but they can recall lots of incredible details.

In addition to these elements, we need to acknowledge that many autistic people often have a different way of processing sensory information. Things may feel to them very loud and harsh, or muted and barely there. Sometimes we see people who appear to be sensory-avoidant or sensory-seeking. This is their attempt to regulate their experience, to manage when their sensory system is overloaded or underfed.

As a speech and language therapist I aim to be pro-neurodiversity in my practice, which means helping autistic children to better understand their unique communication profile and helping all the people around them to understand this better, so that we can all make adjustments and figure out how to communicate together successfully.

Some of the children that I meet view toys and play in a different way. Here’s some ideas on taking a pro-neurodiversity approach to play.

If you’d like to learn more about supporting your child’s early communication development, then check out Toddler Talk.

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