What is ‘normal’ anyway?

Just a quick note, my blog is primarily based on personal views and experience, sometimes referring to research and some background information, with the aim of helping anyone who may be suffering, or know of anyone suffering from a mental health illness. I would welcome any advice and feedback on my blogs, or your personal thoughts on the topic. My post today is about Autism.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder (disorders of brain function that affect emotion, learning, memory, and behaviour). Autism is also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD), because there are different types of Autism, and it’s understand that the disorder actually lies on a spectrum. Some traits of ASD are seen in the general population, but someone with the disorder will generally have more severe symptoms.

Whilst I have been unable to find a worldwide statistic for autism spectrum disorder, it is estimated that around 1 in 100 people in the UK; and around 1 in 68 in the US, have a form of autism. These statistics are the easiest to find (and hence included here), but other countries would have similar statistics also.

An individual with Autism will lack social behaviours, communication skills, and exhibit restricted and repetitive behaviours. However, it is important to remember that Autism lies on spectrum (ASD), and therefore individuals with autism will each have different ‘symptoms’ that vary in severity.

Common symptoms of ASD include:

Social:

  • Unlikely to approach others or to pursue social interaction; perhaps unable to respond to social interactions
  • Lack of interest in others
  • Prefers to be alone
  • Unusual or inappropriate gestures or body language (particularly a lack of eye contact)
  • Difficulty understanding others emotions, feelings, or behaviours (unable to empathise)
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Doesn’t really like body contact
  • Difficulties adapting behaviour to different social contexts
  • Lack of imaginative play (as a child)
  • Lack of interest in others

Communication:

  • A delay in ability to speak (or complete lack of speech)
  • Unusual or inappropriate use of body language (particularly a lack of eye contact)
  • Sometimes unable to speak, apart from the use of particular words or phrases
  • Repetitive speech (echolalia) – repeating a particular word(s) that another has used
  • Troubles with usual rules of a conversation (e.g. turn taking)
  • Difficulties communicating wants and needs (due to lack of speech)
  • Inability to understand humour, irony, and sarcasm

Restricted and Repetitive Behaviours:

  • Adherence to non-functional routines and rituals
  • A strong need for routine and order (can become very upset by change)
  • Stereotyped and repetitive motor behaviours (body movements)
  • Preoccupations with particular objects (or parts of objects)
  • Repetitive speech
  • Restricted (or fixed) interests
  • Hypo/hyper reactivity to sensory input (over/under reactivity to particular things)
  • Sleep disturbances are common in individuals with ASD (which impact behaviour and learning)
  • Epilepsy is also common in individuals with ASD
  • Savant (special) skills are also common in around 10% of individuals with ASD (mathematical skills, art, music, etc.) – such as that portrayed in Rain Man
  • Difficulties regulating or expressing emotions appropriately

It should be noted that just because someone displays a few autism-like symptoms, it doesn’t mean that they have ASD; and for someone to have ASD, they do not need to have all of these symptoms (or they may have other symptoms to those listed) – if you suspect someone you care for may have ASD, you should seek advice from your GP as soon as possible.

There are different types of autism (classified by symptoms and severity), and diagnosis is usually first speculated by your GP, who will then refer you to the relevant professionals that can provide further information, help, and support. Symptoms are sometimes present from birth, but usually become clearer when a child is around 12-36 months; but in some cases aren’t apparent until later.

In order for a child to be diagnosed with ASD, it takes several tests, observations, and meetings. A full medical, behavioural, and developmental history will be needed, with several interviews with parents, caregivers (and maybe the child’s education system, etc.). Medical examinations, observations, and psychological testing may also be used to confirm an ASD diagnosis. It is important to remember that the earlier a diagnosis is given (in terms of age), the easier it will be to access and arrange the appropriate support needed. It’s also important that if you are an adult (or if you know an adult) with symptoms of ASD, you should still see your GP.

There is no specific medication used in the treatment of ASD, but there are some medications that could be prescribed to treat specific symptoms (such as depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, seizures (epilepsy), or ADHD). However, whilst no specific medication is used, there is a huge amount of support available for anyone with ASD. A treatment plan should be put together with the help of the family, mental health specialists (psychologist or psychiatrist), your GP, a speech and language therapist, an occupational therapist, education system (e.g. the school your child is in), and social care services. However, the list of individuals involved in the care of the individual with ASD will vary depending on factors such as severity, availability, etc. Psychological treatments to assist with anxiety, depression etc. associated with ASD may also be offered. It’s important that an individual with ASD has strong, continuous support available to them.

There is also support available to parents and carers, and joining Autism support groups and charities can also be extremely helpful and provide much needed support. It may also be beneficial to help the individual with ASD engage in activities that they enjoy, such as cooking, going to the cinema, or even wall climbing. This is to ensure that they are exposed to social situations so that they can develop some social skills; it helps to focus their energy on activities that they enjoy; it provides excitement and something to look forward to up to the day; and because it’s something that they enjoy.

With the upcoming World Autism Awareness Day soon approaching, my blog post today is about Autism. For most people, Autism just describes someone who is antisocial, strange, or weird. But, the thing is, Autism is much more than that. This again relates to a theme throughout my posts, about the social stigma attached to mental health. Someone with autism isn’t weird or strange, but is (as the cover photo above states) unique, interesting, and sometimes mysterious. I think the picture acronym used for Autism describes the word perfectly. It’s important to remember that someone with ASD (and other mental health disorders) should be treated just as equally as you expect to be. Besides, who are you to judge anyway?

I have written this particular blog simply to inform people about Autism, what it involves, and the forms of treatment available. I hope that this blog has been informative, and that people understand the disorder better. Help can be found from your GP; and further information about the condition can be found through these well-informed websites and books listed below:

http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is.aspx

http://www.autismwestmidlands.org.uk/

http://www.autism-society.org/

Higashida, N. (2013). The reason I jump. Great Britain: Sceptre. (Such an insightful book – I would definitely recommend this, even as a casual read)

Bailey, S. & Shooter, M. (2009). The Young Mind. GB: Bantam Press. (Useful tips for parents, with some worldwide websites also)

Please do ask any questions or suggest any topics that you would like me to discuss – I’ll do my best to deliver! Thank you for reading!

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