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What is autism?

April 11, 2018

“Different, not less.”
Temple Grandin 

Autism is a pervasive neurological developmental condition that impacts how an individual perceives, processes, responds to, and engages with the world.  It is “pervasive” because it affects every part of the person, “neurological” because it affects the structure and functioning of the brain, and “developmental” because it begins early in life and manifests in different ways at various stages of an individual’s development.

Autism is characterized by deficits in social interaction and communication. Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors are also common, as are difficulties with sensory processing and integration.  Autistic people may struggle with verbal and non-verbal communication, reading social cues, reciprocal conversation, making eye contact, engaging in cooperative and imaginative play/activities, and making friends. They may adhere inflexibly to rituals and routines, insist on sameness and become very distressed over the slightest change, have a limited range of interests, use unusual intonation patterns, and engage in repetitive motor movements such as flapping, finger flicking, spinning, or rocking.  They may also have extraordinary gifts, abilities and talents, superior intelligence, a unique outlook and creativity.

Autism is NOT a disease or an illness. It’s not something that “happens,” something that one can catch or transmit. It is a lifelong condition that affects how people receive, process, express internal and external information. Because their brain works differently, autistics think differently, see and relate to the world differently.  This can be made challenging by impairments in executive functioning and sensory integration that typically accompany autism – turning a normal flow of information from our daily environment into a flood of unpredictable, chaotic data and a painful assault on all the senses.

Autism is a SPECTRUM condition: all autistic people share certain core characteristics that will affect them in different ways, and level of functioning can vary tremendously – from mild to severe. The spectrum spans a broad range of intellectual ability.  Autistic children have just as much capacity for growth, development, and learning as non autistic children do.  An autistic child may speak early, late, or never, but this does not mean he will not develop, learn, or meet other milestones. With the right kind of support from parents, educators, and the community, all can be helped to live a fulfilling life of their own choosing.




SOURCES: Autism Center, UC San Diego School of Medicine; Autism Science Foundation; Autism Society; Autism Speaks; Blog.TheAutismSite; Center for Disease Control; DSM-5 (2013); Medical News Today (March 2016); NYU Langone Child Study Center; Silberman, S. (2015). Neuro Tribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity, Silberman.  NY, NY: Penguin Random House LLC;