What Is Autism?
What Is Autism?
Even the very definition of autism sparks controversy. Autism was long described as a pervasive developmental disorder, meaning that it becomes apparent in early childhood and affects all aspects of a child’s development. However, there is much more openness now to the idea that autism need not be seen as a disorder but rather as a neurological difference, hence the terms “neurodiverse” and “neurodivergent.”
In fact, many adults on the autism spectrum (and some parents) feel very strongly about the difference (vs. disorder) paradigm. At the same time, there is a school of thought that sees autism as a disability, a paradigm which shares some perspectives with both the disorder and the difference paradigms.
(The Son-Rise Program comes from an understanding that we can both see people on the spectrum as perfect, beautiful, and magnificent as they are while still believing that each individual is capable of growing and accomplishing feats they have not yet accomplished.)
The word “Autism” was first used as a diagnosis in 1943, by Dr. Leo Kanner (Kanner, 1943) of Maryland’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, after studying 11 children he diagnosed to have early infantile Autism. According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 36 children in the U.S. have been identified with Autism spectrum disorder. Prevalence of Autism in U.S. children increased from 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 36 children by 2022 (CDC, 2023). Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability and is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls (CDC, 2023). Autism is also reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups (CDC, 2023)
A diagnosis of Autism is given when two specific areas of development are significantly affected. They are: social interaction and communication, and repetitious behaviors and so-called restricted interests (American Psychological Association, 2013, CDC, 2020). More specifically, people with Autism have been thought to be challenged by the ability to understand others’ perspectives or attribute mental states to other people (often referred to as mind-blindness or lack of Theory of Mind) and have been said to display a lack of empathy. (In The Son-Rise Program, we know that the ideas of so-called mind-blindness and lack of empathy come, ironically, from people in the neurotypical community looking at people on the spectrum from the outside and misunderstanding what is occurring on the inside.) Communication challenges may range from no (current) use of language to difficulty participating in the kinds of social conversations that the neurotypical community regularly engages in. Repetitious behaviors (often referred to as “stims” – though not in The Son-Rise Program) may be patterns of motor movements (fine or gross motor), repeated verbal lines (often called “scripting”) or involve unusual sensory stimulations (e.g. spinning or dropping objects or watching movement). Other children with Autism may have more usual interests but have an unusually focused range of interests or become powerfully focused on a few interests. These developmental differences tend to become apparent between 18 and 36 months of age (see Early Symptoms of Autism).
Positive Characteristics and Strengths of People on the Autism Spectrum
People with Autism can be characterized not only by these areas of challenge but also by significant areas of strength. Many people on the Autism spectrum are superior at what is known as systemizing, that is, “the drive to analyze objects and events, to understand their structure and predict their future behavior” (Baron-Cohen, 2005, pp. 110). This may be exhibited as an intense interest in train time-tables, for example, or an almost intuitive sense of how to program a computer. Other cognitive patterns have emerged through research. For example, people with Autism tend to show an above-average awareness of details and ability to segment stimuli (e.g. Happe, 1999).
In 2009, a joint study between the University of Montreal and Harvard University, researchers found that individuals on the Autism spectrum were able to problem solve an average of 40 percent faster than individuals with neurotypical brain development. Scientists found that the participants with ASD were able to do this because they had more advanced perception and processing abilities. Some people with Autism have superior abilities in discrete areas such as mathematics, music or art. The Son-Rise Program goes deeper to comprehend that such areas (as well as areas less recognized by societal conventions) are not merely so-called areas of strength but areas of interest, fascination, and emotion. That is why this approach explores, celebrates, and builds upon these interests, as well as using them as a basis for relationship and trust-building.
The Autism Spectrum
Autism is considered to have a spectrum of manifestations, now more commonly referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or simply the autism spectrum. This means there is a wide variety to Autism. Some people with autism are highly verbal and conversational while others may not use any verbal forms of communication. Similarly, some people on the spectrum seem very withdrawn from social interaction while others have families and jobs. People with autism test as having a wide range of IQs. (And, of course, IQ tests themselves have their own biases.)
Some early theorists believed that autism was caused by emotionally withdrawn parenting (i.e. “refrigerator mothers” Bettelheim, 1967). This idea was completely discredited decades ago. Nevertheless, many old paradigms still reach into the present. A diagnosis of Autism is still made on the basis of behavioral observation. There is currently no genetic, chemical or neurological test for Autism, although all of these things have been shown to be instrumental in its etiology (see Possible Causes).
There is now a great deal of evidence that Autism primarily involves neuro-biological challenges and differences. That is, the characteristic social, communicative and repetitious behaviors from which Autism is diagnosed are the developmental consequences of a brain that is fundamentally wired and organized differently (e.g. Baron-Cohen, 2005). To date however, there is not clear, agreed-upon cause of Autism, and approaches to treatment can vary widely (see Autism Treatment).