It’s called a spectrum for a reason…
“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” is a phrase I’ve heard so many times, yet a phrase that couldn’t be more accurate! There are traits that everyone with autism will have to some extent or another, such as difficulty in social communication. However, there is a reason autistic spectrum disorder is called autistic spectrum disorder….
Everyone with autism is different! Some people with autism will be non-verbal, others will be verbal. Some people with autism will hate being touched, others won’t mind it. Some people with autism will hate certain noises, others will love those noises. The list is endless. Autism really does affect people in a whole range of different ways.
If someone tells you that they, or someone else, is autistic, I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that you know someone else with autism. As long as you make it clear that you understand that everyone with autism is different. And don’t make assumptions about the person based on what you know about someone else with autism.
You may have heard lots of different terms about autism: ‘Asperger’s’, ‘High-Functioning Autism’, ‘Low-Functioning Autism’. What do they all mean? So autism can range from ‘mild’ to ‘severe’, with mild autism also referred to as ‘high-functioning autism’ and severe autism referred to as ‘low-functioning autism’.
Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism that is generally considered to be on the ‘high-functioning’ end of the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s Syndrome often have fewer problems with language, in terms of speaking, than people with autism (not that people with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t have autism…because Asperger’s Syndrome is a type of autism).
Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome tend to be the most commonly known Autistic Spectrum Disorders, but they are not the only ones. PDD-NOS (Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified) is an ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) where the person has some, but not all of the characteristics of autism.
PDA (pathological demand avoidance) has only recently been considered to be part of the autism spectrum, as they share many of the difficulties of people with autism but people with PDA tend to have a better social understanding and communication than other people with autism. The main difficulty people with PDA have is that they have a high level of anxiety when demands are placed on them. The National Autistic Society website has some useful information about PDA: http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/pda.aspx
You may have noticed that I have used quotation marks when referring to ‘High-Functioning Autism’ and ‘Low-Functioning Autism’. There is a lot of debate surrounding these labels. Firstly, where is the ‘cut-off point’? How can you say that one person on the spectrum is ‘High-Functioning’ and the next person along the spectrum is ‘Low-Functioning’? And what about the people who are ‘High-Functioning’ is some situations but ‘Low-Functioning’ in other situations? A brilliant discussion about this and other labels can be found on Chris Bonello’s website ‘Autistic Not Weird’: http://autisticnotweird.com/labels/. In addition to the debates about who is categorised as ‘Low’ or ‘High’ Functioning, there is also the issue that calling someone ‘Low-Functioning’ isn’t the nicest of things to say is it?
Now, we come onto the discussion of ‘mild’, ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ autism. Some people disagree with these labels to the same extent as they disagree with the labels ‘high’ and ‘low’ functioning. I personally think that saying someone has ‘mild’ ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ autism is necessary though – and it’s true, some people do have more severe autism than others do. For example, one person might have autism but their difficulties don’t stop them from living independently, while another person with autism may need lots of extra support and be unable to live independently.
We do need to know more about the person as an individual, as saying whether they have mild or severe autism doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about the person. I don’t believe they’re distinct categories either, as I mentioned before autism affects people in a whole range of different ways and everyone with autism is unique. But nonetheless, it gives us an idea as to how much the person’s autism affects them.
A common stereotype of autism is that people with autism are all savants, which means that they have an exceptional ability in a certain area. In reality, only 10% of people with autism have savant abilities. I think a large reason for this stereotype was due to the film ‘Rainman’ – again, remember that is just one person with autism! Something that lots of people with autism do have though, are ‘obsessions’. But even if someone with autism has an obsession with a particular topic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a savant ability in that area.
Also, many people with autism may have additional learning disabilities, specific learning difficulties, or medical conditions, while other people may just have an autistic spectrum disorder.
One particular example of where someone has assumed that every autistic person is the same with my little brother, Ramsey, is when my mum was looking to get a dog. My mum was told by the animal shelter that someone else who had a child with autism had to return the dog because their child kept hitting the dog, and that it wouldn’t be a good idea for my mum to get a dog because of that. That’s one person with autism! That doesn’t mean just because Ramsey has autism too that he would do the same. And also, any child may hit a dog anyway whether they’ve got autism or not! Such an ignorant comment to make!
So please remember, autism is called a ‘spectrum’ disorder for a reason – don’t just assume that everyone on the spectrum is the same!