Autism is a developmental disability of the brain, much like dyslexia, mental retardation, or attention deficit disorder. Autism is not a form of mental retardation, and though many autistic people appear to function as retarded, they are frequently quite intelligent. Approximately 15 of every 10,000 individuals and nearly 400,000 people in the United States today have some form of autism (Dowdy).
The word autism may actually refer to several similar disabilities, including Autistic Disorder, Aspergers Syndrome, and “Atypical” Autism. Atypical Autism is a type of Pervasive Developmental Disorder, not otherwise specified.
Though there are some differences between these conditions, they are quite similar, and those who have them experience many of the same difficulties in life (All).
The symptoms of autism can vary widely from one individual to the next. Autism is referred to as a spectrum disorder because it ranges in severity across a wide range of conditions, like the colors of a rainbow. In addition, some people may be affected more by one symptom, while others may be affected more strongly by a different symptom. Also, some of the symptoms may have variable manifestations (Twachtman).
Autistic people tend to have unusual sensory experiences.
These experiences may involve a sense being too sensitive, less sensitive than normal, and/or difficulty interpreting a sense. These experiences do not involve hallucinations; autistic people have sensory experience based on real experiences, like normal people, but the experience may feel or sound different. Sometimes, the autistic person may have difficulty interpreting the experience. No two autistic people appear to have the exact same pattern of sensory problems. It is not uncommon, for example, for an autistic person to avoid being touched. This is usually because of a heightened sense of touch.
A gentle touch to most people may hurt or shock some autistic people. Others may experience confusion, due to difficulty interpreting the sensation or insufficient sensation reaching the brain to interpret (Dowdy). Another, not uncommon pattern is to have the strength of the sensation inverse from that of the stimulation, so that a gentle touch may feel like an electric shock, but firm contact may not be a problem. On the other hand, some autistic people may be insensitive to pain, and fail to notice injuries (Twachtman). Hearing may also be heightened, so that noises that don’t bother others may hurt an autistic person’s ears. Many autistic people have trouble making out what is said to them, as they have trouble processing sound.
Vision may also be affected. Some autistic people have trouble recognizing people. This means that learning to recognize someone is hard, recognition may be slow, faces tend to be analyzed rather than recognized automatically, and many normal effects of seeing a person may be absent. The exact effects and severity may vary between people. Other autistic people may have their eyes hurt by bright light or certain flickering or vibrating frequencies (All).
One common effect of these heightened senses, is that autistic people are vulnerable to sensory overload with continued low-level bombardment.
This may also result from too much emotional or social stimulation. Autistic people may become overloaded in situation that would not bother, or might even entertain, a normal person. When overloaded, autistic people have trouble concentrating, may feel tired or confused, and some may experience physical pain. Too much overload may lead to tantrums or emotional outburst. Another result of too much overload may be “shutdown,” in which the person looses some or all of the person’s normal functioning. Shutdown may feel different to different people, but is extremely unpleasant (Dowdy).
Autistic people have a great deal of trouble understanding things in the social environment. This includes both understanding of social cues and conventions, and understanding language. One aspect of autism is that it is like being in perpetual culture shock. No matter where the autistic person goes or how long the autistic person stays, they dont feel comfortable. They don’t understand many of the basic social assumptions that others take for granted, often without even being consciously aware of them. In many situations, it’s like being dropped into the middle of an unfamiliar play, and being the only one there who doesn’t know the script, you’re role, or even what .