Autism is Misunderstood

Child drawing

By Mimi Prickett

As seen in Pegasus Pages, March 2013.

Many people are under the misconception that an autistic individual is one who is socially awkward and has a particular special talent such as excellence in maths, drawing or piano playing. Yes, often someone with autism finds large gatherings of people, and social occasions very challenging, however, only about one in ten exhibit special talents. Someone with learning disabilities is perhaps thought of as an individual who cannot read or write and an individual who behaves like a child. The spectrum of learning disabilities is vast, ranging from mild difficulties with numeracy and literacy, to an individual with multiple and profound learning disabilities who cannot speak or move voluntarily. Perhaps it is time for us to revise our views of these particular stereotypes along with discussing the science behind these conditions.

My older sister is autistic as well as having severe learning disabilities; she is hugely anxious, and struggles with everyday scenarios due to her fear of changing weather, people and places she doesn’t know as well as being unable to look after herself.  What I have learnt is that everyday life does not go to plan most of the time and also little mishaps with no real consequence don’t really matter. Having one’s drawing scribbled on, one’s favorite skirt cut up and a family holiday abruptly curtailed can at the time seem like a catastrophe. Over the years though I have realized that we are incredibly lucky, we have mutual understanding, empathy and care for one another, which enables us to live a happy life – but one that is still full of constant challenges, which need to be overcome.

So what is autism? Autism is defined as a “lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.” It is only diagnosed currently between the ages of three and five, however, some cutting-edge research in Detroit, Michigan is developing MRI scans that can identify where the neural connections are being made in the brains of developing fetuses. This could potentially lead to pre-natal diagnosis of developmental disabilities such as autism. What would this mean? I don’t know, as we would not want this to lead to more abortions or anxiety, however, it could mean that before or at birth, particular strategies could be employed to help maximize the development of children who are shown to have developmental difficulties giving them the best ability to cope with life.

A learning disability is “A heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities. The disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to Central Nervous System Dysfunction.” They are hugely complex, and the learning disabled are a particularly vulnerable, and overlooked, sector in society today. Autism and learning disabilities frequently come hand-in-hand within an individual.

Both conditions still remain fairly mysterious and are not fully understood, but scientific research is constantly being done. Autistic children process information differently in their brains, with their neural connections and synapses organized in unusual ways.  There are thoughts that bacteria in the gut can be linked to autism and also it is widely understood that excess alcohol consumption during pregnancy can result in a child being mildly or severely learning disabled. Previous scientists believed that vaccinations such as the MMR could cause these disorders, however, this has now been disproven. Therefore, there seem to be factors that are controllable as well as those that are not.

What we do know is that having a developmental disorder automatically puts you at a disadvantage in life, both socially and usually academically which in turn leads to a huge gap developing between peers both in behavior and understanding. This disadvantage socially is not, and should not, be acceptable.  We all believe in equality in terms of race, religion, gender and class therefore the next advance in society needs to be those who are autistic and or learning disabled.  We, the stereotypical “normal” people can learn and benefit as much, if not more, from those who are autistic or learning disabled as they can from us.

Early intervention with education in special schools is a way of targeting and hopefully improving the quality of life of those suffering from these conditions. Education needs to be modeled in order to be relevant and absorbable for the individuals and it should be of lasting benefit. It should be differentiated and broken down into steps so that it is comprehensible for the individuals. Balanced and broad learning material can help children and young people to understand the world around them better and multi sensory methods of teaching will help to improve investigative skills as well as curiosity. Teachers need to be able to adjust to each child’s individual needs and therapeutic techniques such as hydrotherapy, sensory, communication, physical and medical therapies can be used to improve well-being.

My desire in life is to use my love for science to help research into the scientific nature of these conditions, how anxiety can be overcome and ways to make such a hostile world seem less daunting to those who cannot understand it. I also want to help try to improve the lives of those who are not so lucky as my sister, those who are institutionalized, taken away from their homes and withdrawn from society.

Photography: By ianus on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). The model in the photograph is not connected with this article.

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