1 in 100: Why We Should All Have an Understanding of Autism

News Page 2nd April 2019

Dr David Preece, Senior Lecturer at the University of Northampton blogs about the importance of understanding of Autism.

“As an academic who’s worked with people with autism for about 30 years, I’m sharing a few thoughts about autism.

“Autism is a spectrum condition, which can impact in a wide variety of ways; as Stephen Shore -a professor of Special Education who himself has autism — says, ‘If you’ve seen one person with autism…then you’ve seen one person with autism!’; most of us will have, as autism now affects about one in a hundred children here in England. All will share characteristic difficulties and differences — problems regarding socialisation and communication, issues related to how their senses work, and difficulties with change. But all are individuals, with their own unique skills and interests.

“Sensory issues and sensitivities weren’t included in the diagnostic criteria for autism until recently, but most (if not all) people with autism I’ve ever known have had some difficulties or differences with how their senses work.

“This can mean that ordinary sounds, sights, tastes and smells — that most of us might not even notice — can be overwhelming for them. The flickering of a fluorescent light, the sound of a distant car alarm, shouting echoing around the gym, the smell of cooking wafting into the classroom (or walking past the school toilets): all of these experiences can overwhelm the person’s senses, making the everyday world feel an unfriendly and hard place to be in.

“We all experience the world through our senses, and it’s hard to imagine how something that we hardly notice can be such a problem to someone else (it wasn’t till I got a hearing aid that I suddenly noticed how noisy the freezer section in the supermarket became with my new, hypersensitive hearing). Understanding autism is important, but focusing on the individual, and how their autism affects them, is absolutely crucial.

“Everyone with autism is different, so what will be problematic to one person may not bother another.”

“It is hardly surprising that some may seek comfort in repetition and sameness. Eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, watching the same DVD, even saying the same things: all make the world a more predictable and less scary place; and Naoki Higashida writes that ‘Repeating questions we already know the answers to can be a pleasure… It’s great fun. It’s like a game of catch with a ball.’

“Similarly, people with autism can be extremely focused or fixated on their special interests. Often these may be fact-based (astronomy, league tables) but books (such as Harry Potter) and films or TV can be favourite topics too. Brain-imaging experiments have shown that the parts of the brain that light up for faces in neurotypical people light up for objects in autism. Whereas we are hard-wired to be interested in people, they are more focused on the non-social.

“A need for routine and predictability, and special interests, are characteristic in autism. It is down to those of us working with people with autism to address these needs and interests. So, for example, using a ‘visual schedule’ consistently can make the world make sense and help the person with autism deal with change (just like checking your diary).

Understanding autism is important, but focusing on the individual, and how their autism affects them, is absolutely crucial.

Taken from a series of blogs written by Dr David Preece, originally published on Medium for World Autism Day.

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