Autism and Aspergers


I wrote this article for people who I work with.  I hoped it might help families understand a bit more about autism and especially Aspergers Syndrome.  Many of the individuals we advocate for here at SAtA, have austism as well as a learning disability.

Autism is sometimes known as the hidden disability because it doesn`t show on the outside.  It is a very complicated developmental disability that causes problems with social interactions and communication and the clues can start when a child is very small, even before they are two or three years old. Autism can cause delays in learning and can also bring about many kinds of behavioural problems from infancy, right through to adulthood.

Individuals with autism can have very different ways of being so generally, autism is thought of as a “spectrum disorder,” or a group of disorders with similar features.  Some individuals may have mild signs or symptoms while others may have very serious issues, but they all have an autism spectrum disorder.

Aspergers syndrome sits on the autistic spectrum.  Interestingly the diagnosis of Aspergers is now being used less commonly and has been replaced with the new term Autistic Spectrum Disorder, which covers just about everything.  There is widespread concern about this which was recently highlighted and discussed in the Guardian:

People with Aspergers can be similarly mildly to significantly affected.  Many individuals who are mildy affected may be able to function well in their community and live a more or less ordinary life.  Others less fortunate may be so severely affected that the symptoms are completely debilitating and they are unable to function in an ordinary sense at all.

Simon Baron Cohen is a professor of Developmental Psychopathology (and also cousin to the actor Sacha Baron Cohen of Ali G fame).  He has researched and specialised in Autistic Spectrum Disorder and has had several books and eminent articles published on the subject.  He has devised a questionnaire which can be taken by anyone and which pinpoints whether or not you are showing any autistic traits.  Although this is definitely not a diagnosis, I found it enlightening.  Having gone through the test with several friends, family and colleagues, I would imagine that around 75% of the general population sit somewhere on the autistic spectrum.  The link is below if you want to have a go.

Thousands of people worldwide go through their lives living with the uncomfortable effects of autism or Aspergers and haven`t got a clue that this is what has been troubling them, their families and friends for all of their lives.  In other words they remain undiagnosed which is a shame because many people who have had a diagnosis report how relieved they are to have an explanation for their varied symptoms.  It can make sense of chaos and a diagnosis can offer people options to bring about change.

Here are some of the challenges a person with aspergers can bring into a relationship:

They often find social situations extremely uncomfortable, people with aspergers find making friends easier said than done and often don`t have any friends to speak of.  Eye contact is difficult or impossible to maintain and they cannot read facial expressions so they can often speak at inappropriate moments, or say something offensive, not understanding they have done so.  When speaking they may go on without a break.  They cannot recognise when it`s the other person`s turn to speak or even if the other person doesn`t find the topic interesting.  It`s possible to turn away from someone with aspergers when they are talking and they may continue with or without your attention.  They may exhibit odd expressions of movement as in Tourettes syndrome or they might adopt  a vacant expression while they talk, sometimes for a long time.

People with autism are often above average intelligence, they can also be funny and charming and so they are very attractive to people who are looking for someone to nurture.  Unfortunately for the person in a relationship with an individual who has autism, they may find that their own emotional needs remain largely unmet because the person with autism simply cannot relate to someone else`s needs.  They are unable to empathise or give back some of that nurture to their non-autistic partner who probably has to seek that kind of emotional sustenance elsewhere.

Someone with aspergers may find it very difficult to recognise when they are becoming wound up.  Most neuro typicals (people who do not have autistic traits) know the signs when they are becoming angry, for example, shortness of breath, a redness of neck, a raising of blood pressure.  The person with aspergers on the other hand, can get more and more wound up and unable to distinguish these feelings from any other, suddenly break out in an explosive display which may include verbal abuse and damaging property.  In other words, put the ornaments away!

I remember last year, speaking to a woman who was married to a man with aspergers.  He worked in the army and had a very successful career, largely because people with aspergers seek repetition so the every day order and routine of the army suited this man perfectly.  He knew what to expect and his work was nothing to be scared of or become stressed about.  The flip side of this tale though is that his appalling behaviour at social functions especially at family parties, resulted in him being banned from all future visits.  So, living with someone with aspergers is definitely not easy but if you enjoy a challenge…..

There is no cure for autism.  Some behaviours can be changed through CBT  (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) or NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming.)  The cause is not yet understood but researchers are leaning more and more towards autism having a genetic cause so the autistic traits may run in families.

Lots of people who have autism or aspergers or any other diagnosis on the spectrum are often labelled as someone with a disability.   Having worked with many people who have aspergers or autism, I prefer to think of people with autism as someone who is marvellous and unique.   🙂

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