Autism:  Improving Understanding in the Community

by ConnectWC

Autism has practically become a household word in the last few years. We hear about it at school, in the media and out in the community. With the CDC reporting the current rate of autism at 1 in 68, someone you know is likely affected by an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), either themselves or someone in their family. But what is it like to have autism? Maybe it would be good to start by sharing some misconceptions.

Autism Misunderstandings

Misunderstanding: Individuals with autism are similar.

Just like snowflakes, no two people with autism are the same. They share the common traits of autism –difficulty with communication and socialization, repetitive behaviors and sometimes sensory issues, but that is where the similarity ends. Many individuals with autism have normal intelligence; many others have cognitive impairments. Some are verbal and others do not speak and rely on other means to communicate. Living independently within the community is possible for some, and others need lifelong care. This is the autism "spectrum" – a neurodevelopmental disorder that spans a wide range of abilities and challenges.

Misunderstanding: Autism is something new.

Autism may be making the headlines more frequently these days, but it was first recognized over 70 years ago in 1943 by Leo Kanner, a child psychologist practicing in the United States.

At almost the same time in Austria, pediatrician Hans Asperger identified a group of boys that had normal intelligence and language, but had difficulty with social interactions, limited interests, and had repetitive behaviors. He called this Asperger Syndrome. Individuals with Asperger's (or "Aspies") are often more mildly affected and may have motor skill challenges, appearing clumsy in their movements. Until recently, Asperger Syndrome was considered a separate condition from autism. In 2013, this changed when the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5 (the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) reclassified the condition. It now considers those formerly diagnosed with Asperger's as part of a broader category of autism spectrum disorders.

Under the new DSM-5, individuals with ASD are referred to as having one of three severity levels: Level 1 – Requiring Support; Level 2 – Requiring Substantial Support; and Level 3 – Requiring Very Substantial Support.   Individuals whose "severity" falls outside the bandwidth of these three levels but who exhibit significant social communication challenges will then possibly be diagnosed as having "Social Communication Disorder."

Misunderstanding: When someone with autism doesn't look at you, they are ignoring you and don't want to interact with you.

Some individuals with autism find it extremely difficult to make eye contact. They may have body movements that are unfamiliar or say things or make sounds that you don't understand. This doesn't mean they are not listening to you or don't care what you have to say. It may feel a bit awkward at first in connecting with someone who may communicate differently than you do, but if you try you may be surprised at the amazing connection you could make!

Misunderstanding: Those with autism are disconnected from the world and don't have empathy for others.

This myth may have developed because people with autism may express their emotions differently. They want friends, too! Their relationships may look a little different to us, but they create strong connections to special people in their lives. Many are sensitive and highly intuitive to those around them. In fact, they are often overly sensitive and they find it extremely difficult to regulate their empathetic feelings.

Young people on the Spectrum shared their experiences with empathy in a website discussion on Wrongplanet.net:

"If anything, I struggle with having too much empathy" one person commented. "If someone else is upset, I am upset. There were times during school when other people were misbehaving, and if the teacher scolded them, I felt like they were scolding me."

Another individual said, "I am clueless when it comes to reading subtle cues, but I am very empathic. I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling, and I think this is actually quite common in AS/autism. The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it."

Misunderstanding: Savant skills are common.

Although some individuals have unique and extraordinary skills in areas such as math, memorization and the arts, only ten percent of those with autism possess these talents.

Some of the Challenges for Caregivers

Wandering away

Some children with autism are "runners". They need constant supervision to keep them safe, as they may put themselves into dangerous situations without knowing it. There is often a fascination with water in this population, which has ended tragically for many children. The Federal government has recognized this problem and has recently started a program that provides funding so families in need can receive tracking devices for their children.

Community Outings

Children with autism may manifest behaviors in public that can create challenges for caregivers. It's often difficult for a caregiver to discern the underlying cause of the child's behavior and to choose an intervention strategy that fits the cause.

Imagine a 6-year-old boy with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) standing in the middle of the grocery store and screaming. Faced with his behavior and the glances she gets from others in the store, his mother tries to interpret his behavior and respond appropriately. Is he screaming because the store is full of people using eye contact and social smiles that he doesn't understand? Is he screaming because he is hungry, sees a cookie, and doesn't know how to ask for something to eat? Is he screaming because this isn't the same grocery store that he usually goes to with his mother? Is he screaming because he is overwhelmed by the bright lights in the store? Or, is he screaming because he was asked to put food in the shopping cart and he doesn't want to do so?

When this happens, parents report judgmental stares, along with unsolicited advice and lectures from fellow shoppers on how to discipline their child. A smile or offer to help would be a welcome change for families that are trying their best to have a successful outing in the community. These simple gestures might be just what is needed to support a stressed out caregiver, and can keep families from becoming further isolated in their homes. If you find a disruptive child upsetting, just imagine how the parents feel that care for these children on a day-to-day basis, not to mention the individual with autism who is trying his/her best to cope with the world around them!

Social Communication

As a parent, you want to help your child communicate and interact with others. This can be a major challenge if your child is on the Autism Spectrum. The word "autism" has its origin in the Greek word "autos," which means "self." Children with ASD often exist in a private world where they are unable to successfully communicate and interact with others. Children with ASD may have difficulty developing language skills and understanding what others say to them. They also may have difficulty communicating nonverbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions.

Some children with AS may be unable to speak. Others may have rich vocabularies and be able to talk about specific subjects in great detail. Most children with ASD have little or no problem pronouncing words. The majority, however, have difficulty using language effectively, especially when they talk to other people. Many have problems with the meaning and rhythm of words and sentences. They also may be unable to understand body language and the nuances of vocal tones.

Disordered Development (Splinter Skills)

In typical childhood development, different skills build on one another. If we see someone skip, we assume that person can also run, walk, crawl, sit alone, turn over and hold their head up since those skills usually come before skipping.

However, individuals with Autism develop in a "disordered" manner. A person with ASD could have a large vocabulary but might not know how to ask a question or understand advanced calculus and not be able to balance a checkbook. This means that parents and caregivers can't assume that someone with ASD who has advanced skills can also perform the related skills which are more basic.

Understanding Autism in the Classroom

Friendships are important for all of us, but can be more challenging for children with autism at school. Classmates can be confused by mannerisms or other behaviors exhibited by children with autism. Education can be the key that leads to successful relationships with peers. Here are a few resources to help explain autism to fellow students:

  • This YouTube video is narrated by a boy explaining what it's like to have autism.
  • Teachers can play an important role in helping to successfully integrate children with autism and other special needs into their classrooms. Here's a guide teachers can use to help develop successful peer relationships and friendships.
  • Written by a teacher, Dear Child with Autism is a heartwarming letter describing the wonderful contributions a child with autism brings to her classroom.
  • The Kit for Kids guide is designed to teach elementary and middle school students about their peers with autism.  It teaches children that students with autism may think differently or need some accommodations, but all students are of equal worth and should be treated as such.

Employment for Individuals With Autism

Research on employment trends for individuals with ASD tells a troubling story. Just 35 percent of young ASD adults attend college after graduating from high school and only 55 percent have a job 6 years later. Overall, ASD students face a greater than 50 percent chance of being unemployed or not attending college when compared to students with other disabilities. There is no reliable research on the unemployment rates for ASD adults older than 25.

One major reason for this dismal outlook is the fact that, without direct instruction and guidance, individuals with ASD are largely unable to interpret social interactions and handle a wide variety of social situations. These are the very skills they need to look for a job and after getting a job, to stay employed and thrive in the community.

Why hire someone with autism?

Even though each individual with Autism is unique, but there are some reasonable generalizations you can make when identifying the potential job-related assets of ASD individuals.

They're Honest: Lying is a complicated social skill and most of them aren't very good at it.

They Don't Gossip: This is another social skill which most ASD individuals have a hard time mastering. They're not likely to be the source of false or damaging rumors in a company.

They're Punctual: Their need for predictability and structure means they tend to be both punctual and reliable. A report by an international autism group says that employers often comment that absenteeism is lower among their ASD employees.[1]

They're Meticulous: They often prefer logical and structured approaches to their work and they easily get focused on details.

They're Loyal: They generally prefer routine. Once settled in a job, they will often stay in that role considerably longer than others.

[1] Untapped Talent, A Guide to Employing People with Autism, National Autistic Society

It's also important to explore the interests and abilities of individuals on the Spectrum so they don't get pigeonholed into jobs that don't match their true abilities and which aren't satisfying for them on a long-term basis. People on the Spectrum do understand when they're stuck in a job which is make-work rather than real work.

Companies are beginning to realize that individuals with autism are an untapped resource. Learn more about the value of hiring someone with autism in Put Autism to Work! from the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM).

Hiring People with Disabilities Makes Good Business Sense! lists the facts and benefits of hiring someone with autism.

Want to learn more?

The Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) is a nonprofit organization committed to education, support and advocacy designed to enhance the lives of those affected by autism from birth through retirement.

ConnectWC.org has links to resources to help those with autism, their families, friends and the community on the Specific Advocacy Organizations and Resources page.