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Autism & Aspergers

Autism & Aspergers

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a developmental disorder, with a pattern of neurological functioning that it is present from early in life and is a life long condition. It is a spectrum because of the vast differences in the severity of difficulties experienced by those with ASD. The main areas of difficulty are social communication and interaction, and restricted, repetitive or routine bound behavior.

Difficulties with social interactions and communication may include delayed or lack of speech, difficulty with back and forth conversation and social cues, overly literal understanding, little sharing of personal information or feelings, difficulty seeing another’s perspective, difficulty recognizing facial expressions of emotion, and differences in non-verbal communication such as reduced eye contact or facial expression. Due to this people with ASD may find it difficult to understand and maintain relationships and often prefer solitary activities.

People with ASD prefer routine and sameness and can have difficulty dealing with sudden or unexpected change. People often engage in restricted and repetitive behavior such as repetitive tapping or flapping of hands, which may become more frequent under stress. People may also have an intense area or subject of interest in which they are very knowledgeable and this may develop into a career path. People also often have sensory sensitivities, such as aversion to loud noises, or find particular sensory input soothing, such as deep pressure massage.

Some people with ASD find navigating school or the work place daunting especially when this requires frequent interaction with peers, group work and flexibility in thinking and behavior. Often severe ASD is diagnosed early in life, however when symptoms are less severe a persons environment may mask these difficulties until the demands made of them change. For example, when beginning a new job or moving from school into university, or leaving home.

What is Asperger’s?

Due to the large overlap in the difficulties experienced by those with Autism and Asperger’s the term Asperger’s has recently been removed from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a diagnosis, and is now considered to sit within the mild end of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Put simply, Asperger’s refers to someone who has difficulties with social interaction and rigid or routine bound behavior, without a language or speech deficit.

ASD and Anxiety

Due to the nature of ASD it is common for people to find some situations particularly challenging and stressful and experience significant anxiety. Situations such as social events, gaining employment, crowded areas, changing expectations in the work place, and group or team tasks can feel confusing and overwhelming and people have difficulty successfully engaging. This can lead to anxiety and avoidance of these situations.

What does an ASD assessment involve?

A thorough and comprehensive assessment by a qualified practitioner, such as a psychologist, is important and involves a number of components across times and contexts. Interviews and psychometric questionnaires are conducted with the person, and with those close to them such as family members, to gather a cohesive understanding of the person and their history, general and mental health functioning, and ability to complete the tasks required in day-to-day life.

In the case that the person being assessed is a child an observation of their behavior in the school environment will also be completed where possible. This is completed as unobtrusively as possible and does not single out the child from their peers.

Formal testing involves a cognitive assessment which helps identify a persons strengths and weaknesses. Formal assessment of ASD characteristics is also completed using a tool called the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). This is an assessment measure recommended by various organizations as an essential part of ASD assessment. For children it involves enjoyable play based tasks.

Support

There is no cure for ASD, however there is support available which aim to help the person develop skills to compensate for difficulties and for the person and their family cope more effectively.

Information and understanding is important, whether you have ASD or your child or someone you know has ASD. Although there is a lot of information and approaches available be careful to use reputable sources to ensure you are getting good information. Please see the links at the bottom of this page.

For a person with ASD it can be helpful to gain an understanding of their areas of strength and weakness and learn skills to better manage, this may involve teaching of the social cues and techniques that seem to come naturally to others.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also assist with emotion knowledge and regulation, adapting to change, and management of stress and anxiety. Relaxation and mindfulness techniques can also be beneficial.

Parents of a child with ASD may benefit from strategies to help manage rigid behavior, and ‘meltdowns’. Sometimes children have difficulty guessing what others are thinking or feeling so cannot predict people’s behavior, this can lead to misinterpretation and aggression at times. Analysis of these behaviours can help to establish the function and then development of alternative strategies. Children can also benefit from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and learning how to identify and regulate emotions.

Remember everyone has strengths and for a person with ASD these may include traits such as being honest, determined, expertise in specific areas, having a good rote and visual memory, and attention to small details often neglected by others. Several famous and successful people are thought to have had traits of ASD including Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, and Mozart.