What is Autism?

If the world is a stage, and we are the actors (and actresses) of the drama that we call life, then the autistic is a passerby who has stopped to watch us. He finds rituals strange, our frustrations amusing and the masks we wear confusing. "Why would someone want to tell a lie just to please another", he asks himself. "Why do people like to waste time doing useless social rituals instead of improving their lives on Planet Earth", he wonders.

An actor and actress spot him and invite him to perform. "But I do not know how", he exclaims. "Just do it", they tell him. "But I do not understand your alien culture", he protests. "Just improvise", they tell him. And so he walks clumsily up the stage.

He has not seen the script but the stage director says nothing to him. He does not feel at ease and refuses to join the social rituals that he finds ridiculous. He does not know how dance with the exotic alien music and keeps bumping into the other actors. In the end, he makes a fool of himself.

The actors and actress who introduced him on stage now shake their heads. "You should be ashamed of yourself", one of them tells him. "You had better learn how to act properly", says the other. "But I am not interested to act. I just want to watch from the sidelines", he protests. "No you don't. Now just be a good actor and play your part."

Hence, he finds himself lost on the vast stage of Planet Earth, living a life that is not his own, playing a role that he could not fathom and joining in dances that he does not know. The other actors soon have a nickname for him: the autistic.


Different Types of Autism

Autism does not affect everyone in the same way. There are both very mild and severe cases of autism, categorized into many sub-types. Because autistics look the same as non-autistics and have no physical deficiency, people find it difficult to empathize with their "invisible" disability.

First identified in 1943, professionals now classify autism into many categories including Autistic Disorder (usually severe autism) and Asperger's Syndrome (usually mild autism with high intelligence). Because every autistic express autism in a unique manner, professionals use the term "autism spectrum disorder" (ASD) to cover all autism-related disorders.


Difficulties Encountered

Difficulty with time - They may only understand 'now' and fail to learn from past experiences due to the lack of a Subjective Personal History. They are always fearful and anxious to know the future as they could not instinctively predict future events. They have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another as well as handling many unpredictable inputs at the same time. Unable to handle free time, they tend to develop rigid habits.

Difficulty with space - They may only see in two dimensions without the associated location, form, texture of objects. They may have poor body awareness and may not even notice that their body exists. This can cause difficulty controlling motor movements and judging whether it is safe to handle objects in a certain way.

Difficulty with emotions - Many autistics experience emotions with lesser clarity and awareness. Even when they become aware of very strong emotions, they had no idea what to do with them. Without the emotional bonding between friends and family members, they could only build transactional relationships. High functioning autistics (including those with Aspergers) often use their intellect to substitute for their unreliable instincts. They will observe the social situations they encounter, analyze their dynamics and build a huge library of rules on appropriate behavior that they can follow.

The reliance on logic does not mean that they lack emotions. When they are in a bad mood, have too little time to react or encounter something completely foreign to their understanding, their intellect may fail and lead to an emotional outburst. Likewise, even socially competent autistics may fail to handle long term intimate relationships as they could not sustain their mental effort for so long.

Difficulty with human self - The concepts of "self", "other", "tribe (of people)" and "(human) intentions" often elude them. Without their own Subjective Personal History for comparison, other peoples' intentions are a mysterious puzzle.

Difficulty with sensory perception - Without a coherent perception of the world, they experience fragmented consciousness. Sometimes they may miss out the meaning in speech and not realize what happened, making them seem inattentive. They may lack the capacity to enjoy sensory and emotional pleasure, making life a frustrating series of compromises and chores. Even ordinary stimuli like the subtle flickering of fluorescent lighting, strong perfume and noisy hum of traffic can make life very difficult for them.

Difficulty with speech - Without the aid of bodily instincts, speech may be difficult or impossible for them as it requires a good coordination of their mouth, tongue, throat and lungs. Without the social instincts, the content of their speech is limited to what they want, do, see or know without the intent of influencing others.

Autism Misunderstood

Autism is sometimes mistaken as social shyness, but it is more of having a different consciousness. Autism is not just a label. Autistics do suffer because they are constantly misunderstood by the people around them and frustrated by not being able to enjoy the good things that life brings to the rest of us (like feeling the warmth of friendship, enjoying good food, being able to easily multi-task). It is not fun to be autistic.

Many autistics are not anti-social by choice. Non-autistics rely on instincts to guide them in decision making, social interaction and using their physical body. Autistics have to rely on backup systems, such as intellectual reasoning and experience. The missing instincts turn a simple social interaction into a complex social calculus equation. As a result, autistics often see no meaning in the social interaction since they are merely "faking" it. The mental strain tires them and removes any possible pleasure they might obtain.

While most autistics are low functioning and require help to survive, there are also able and intelligent autistics who have made important contributions to our society, such as Temple Grandin and Bram Cohen. Many speculate that Albert Einstein and Bill Gates are on the autism spectrum too.

Sometimes, autism is mistaken as a psychological rather than a developmental disorder. While autistics may develop psychological disorders from the stresses of coping with social demands, bullying, sensory overload etc, there are key differences between these:

  1. Starting Age: Autism starts during childhood; a person cannot develop autism as an adult
  2. Duration: Autism is lifelong while some other disorders tend to be temporarily
  3. Causality: Autism may induce these disorders but not the other way around
  4. Pervasive Impairment: Psychological disorders do not affect the temporal, spatial and social instincts. They may, however, affect one's motivation to socialize or interact with the world.

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Signs of autism

It is also common for autistics to suffer from depression or anger accumulated from their negative experiences with human society. Other common syndromes related to autism include:

Being Aloof to everyone - The autistic child may not show the warmth and closeness of a typical child, not even to his mother because he may not feel the emotional impulses to form social bonds.

Not knowing how to play and share - Autistic children do not know how to play and have no instinct to share their world. They tend to be unconscious of the world around them and unaware of the concept of "people". Thus, they will not point at objects of interest to share with people around them.

No common sense - An autistic often does not see the world as a coherent whole. They tend to misunderstand people because they could not feel the same emotions and bodily instincts. Thus, they may find it difficult to carry out instructions or perform chores using their "common sense".

Face blindness (Prosopagnosia) – Autistics often find it difficult to identify and distinguish faces. This is like trying to tell the difference between two sheep of the same breed, size and color. Instead of facial features, autistics often rely on location (like being in his own office), clothes and hairstyle to distinguish people.

Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD): Many autistics have difficulty filtering away background noise to understand speech. However, they can pass usual hearing tests and may even have super-sensitive hearing.


Related Disorders

Autism is associated with a few other disorders, but it can also occur without any of them.


Autism Causes

Autism affects many more males than females. While professionals generally agree that a genetic factor exists, they have no conclusive explaination for why autism occurs.

Some people speculate that autistics are actually descendents of the Neanderthals, an extinct species which closely resemble modern humans. Perhaps the differences in autistic's body language and functioning are not really defects but merely Neanderthal behavior.

In the meantime, National Institute of Mental Health and the Cure Autism Now Foundation are doing social research on monkeys to learn more about autism. The Baylor College of Medicine in the USA is providing genetic testing for autism using Chromosomal Microarray Analysis (CMA).


Autism Education

Autistic children require a different approach to learning because they perceive and function differently from their non-autistic peers. Techniques such as the use of "social stories" are known to help them. Remedies such as EIP (Early Intervention Programme) reduce autistic syndromes and faciliate autistics to interact with the world around them. Certain drugs also help to make it easier for autistics to cope with their disability, although some of these drugs also have severe side effects.


What if I am autistic?

  • Research - Find out more about autism. Take the online autism tests. If you have a strong feeling of "that's it, that's me", then perhaps you have autism. If not, be more cautious.
  • Discuss - Talk to someone who knows you well. You must also find out your childhood history to be sure: the syndromes of autism are most apparent in young children, and it is often your childhood that determines if you have autism or not.
  • Consider getting diagnosed - A diagnosis will help make your life easier because people will tend to be understanding about your differences. If you are from a needy family, you may be able to obtain financial assistance to pay for your diagnosis. Find out more from the autism organizations near you.
  • Improve your life - Find out how autism affects your body, mind and behavior. Work out strategies to deal with the problems that autism causes you and take advantage of its benefits.

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