What is Autism?
Autism is a neurological condition (not a mental illness) which affects various parts of the brain and leads to a different kind of ‘wiring’ or communication between some areas.
The way each specific brain responds to (and makes up for) these differences is as unique as the individual themselves, but there will always be similarities in certain behaviour patterns in autistic people because their brains gather and process information from the environment in similar ways.
Autistic brains communicate differently to non-autistic brains, which are often referred to as ‘neurotypical’ brains because their neurons process information in a more predictable or typical way.
A person with autism can therefore struggle with some things other people find easy, but can also excel at things others find difficult.
Autism is currently believed to be the result of a number of different genes combining in very precise ways when a child is conceived, although the causes of this particular combination aren’t fully understood yet.
As an autistic person grows up, the way these genes express themselves can be affected by all kinds of factors in their environment. This is great news for anyone living with autism because it means that in the same way a neurotypical brain can be positively influenced by its experiences, so can an autistic brain, giving all brains just as much potential for development, no matter how they’re wired.
Autism is something that’s been around since humanity began. It’s not made up, nor is it ‘just a theory’; it’s a real, genuine physiological condition that affects every part of a person’s physical, mental, psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being and is totally inseparable from the person themselves. It causes difficulties with far more than just speech or learning to fit in, and its many physical effects – including hyper-mobile joints, allergies and problems with digestion – are well documented.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the condition and you can read about some of the most common ones here: Top Ten Autism Myths
To find about it in a lot more depth, I’d recommend you buy my book The Ringmaster’s Tale and if you have any questions do feel free to get in touch.
All About Diagnosis
‘Being diagnosed for any difference,
it’s not about the label no-one need know, it’s about true identity’
Wondering Whether You’re Autistic?
Have you ever wondered how everyone else seems to just ‘fit in’ without trying?
Are you always the last person to get the joke?
Do people get bored with your conversations about the topics you find fascinating?
Do social occasions terrify you?
Do you have trouble doing up buttons and shoelaces?
Do you get upset if your routines are changed without warning?
Do you have rituals and repetitive movements you use to soothe yourself?
Do you seem to have a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time?
Have you ever been called weird, geeky or odd?
If you’ve answered yes to most or even all of the questions above, you’re probably a perfectly ‘normal’ (or neuro-typical) person with a few personality quirks, but you could also be someone on the autistic spectrum. So how can you tell the difference? Well, a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is based on a combination of many, many different factors as well as the severity of how those factors affect you in your day to day life. If you look hard enough, EVERYONE has some traits of autism in their personality, but should everyone get a diagnosis? Of course not! However, if you’re concerned that autism might be causing you or your family problems, then it’s worth getting it checked out. It can be tough asking for help, but it will be worth it, because you’ll gain a better understanding of who you really are as a result.
Obviously it would be impossible to know whether you have an autism spectrum disorder based on the answers to one questionnaire, but if you think you might have one, this is a good place to start and will give you an idea of the sort of questions you’ll be asked by your GP if you’re looking for a diagnosis. It’s called The Adult Autism Spectrum Quotient and is the result of many years of work by The Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. There are no right or wrong answers, just be honest. Download the form, fill in your answers and take it along to your GP. He or she will be able to start building a picture of your personality from the results and if they feel it’s appropriate, they can pass them on to a specialist who’ll give you a full assessment.
You can download the Autism Quotient questionnaire by pressing this link:
Getting a Diagnosis
The procedure for getting a diagnosis is slightly different for adults than it is for children, so each is explained separately below.
Please remember that every individual has the right to decide this for themselves,
and each parent has the right to decide this for their child, so there’s no right or wrong answer to this question,
only what’s best for the individual.
Getting a Diagnosis for Children
If you have concerns about your child’s development and think they might be on the autism spectrum, you may well meet a fair amount of denial and even hostility from other family members, particularly older ones, when you mention getting them diagnosed. Please be understanding of their worries and objections. Older people remember the way those with learning difficulties were treated years ago – they were mostly lumped together by society, put into asylums and written off – so naturally they’ll be afraid that ‘labelling’ your child as autistic will be a negative thing. Autism can be a very inconsistent condition and there may be times when you yourself wonder if you’re imagining there’s something that needs checking out, especially if your child behaves differently when around other people to how they do at home.
Please be assured though that the understanding, treatment and support of children on the spectrum has advanced enormously since the time of the asylums, and the word ‘autism’ is not in fact a label, it’s a way of identifying a specific set of needs that will allow people to understand and help your child so they enjoy a better quality of life and don’t suffer the educational and social isolation that so many autistic people did in the past. For what it’s worth, if your child is different and no-one understands this about them, they’ll be labelled ANYWAY – naughty, lazy, disruptive, stupid, freaky, weirdo…the list goes on.
We prefer to think of the term ‘autistic’ as a way of being, and labels as something you put on jars!
To get a diagnosis then, the first thing to do is make a list of the behaviours you’re concerned about and speak to your GP. If your child is very young, you could also speak to your health visitor. They may carry out a screening process called CHAT (Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) to help identify behaviours you might have missed. If they feel a diagnosis is necessary, they’ll refer you to the next stage – a ‘multi-agency assessment’ which means that various professionals such as paediatricians will assess your child’s development. Not every area has these teams, so if your child is referred to one individual, do make sure they have the relevant experience in diagnosing autism or it may be missed.
Some parents feel their children will use the diagnosis as an excuse for poor performance or bad behaviour. We disagree with this, and believe that autism is a reason for certain behaviours, not an excuse for being naughty. We fully understand that autistic children can be naughty – they are children, after all – and sometimes it’s hard to tell where the autism stops and the naughtiness begins, but with love, patience and understanding, you can learn to separate these things and respond to these behaviours appropriately.
Getting a Diagnosis for Adults
If you’re an adult and you think you might be on the autism spectrum, first have a look at the ‘Wondering Whether You’re Autistic?’ section and download the Autism Quotient questionnaire.
Fill it in and take it along to your GP, then ask for a referral to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist with experience in diagnosing autism spectrum conditions. Be sure to have plenty of time to talk to your GP and make notes of what you’d like to ask, as it’s easy to forget things when you’re under pressure. Getting a diagnosis can be difficult, especially if you’ve learned to cope with everyday life and don’t openly exhibit many of the characteristics, and as with everything of this nature, a lot will depend on your GP’s attitude and experience. You’re entitled to ask for a second opinion if you’re not happy with their initial diagnosis and they refuse to refer you, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get one. You could also ask for a second appointment so you can think things over at home before discussing it further.
Many autistic adults are happy to diagnose themselves as they’re content with their lives and simply want a greater understanding of who they are and why they behave in the ways they do. Others have suffered greatly through bullying, social isolation and low self-esteem and feel a wonderful sense of relief at being able to finally put a name to their difficulties when they’re diagnosed. There is a great feeling of recognition and belonging that happens between people who share similar life experiences, and regardless of what people might tell you, it’s the same with autistic people. The support they (and their families) receive simply by sharing the common struggles and triumphs autism entails, with people who understand them, is priceless.
There are also a range of services, benefits and opportunities available to help autistic people, such as the ‘Prospects’ employment agency run by The National Autistic Society which helps people on the spectrum to find supportive working environments. There’s a lot more information about all the aspects of diagnosis for both children and adults available from The National Autistic Society (NAS) which you can view by clicking on the link below. www.autism.org.uk/about-autism/all-about-diagnosis.aspx
Whatever you decide, remember that being on the autism spectrum is perfectly okay,
and that you’re definitely not the only one who’s on there!