About Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. Autistic people have said that the world, to them, is a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of, and which can cause them considerable anxiety. In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family and social life may be harder for them.

Autism is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all autistic people share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support.

Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome are often of average or above average intelligence. They often still have difficulties with understanding and processing language.

Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are sometimes called a ‘hidden impairment’ because people with the condition do not ‘look’ disabled. Adults find that they are often misunderstood.

Social Communication

 Autistic people can find both verbal and non-verbal language challenging. Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think that people always mean exactly what they say. They can often find it difficult to use or understand:

  • facial expressions or tone of voice
  • jokes and sarcasm
  • common phrases and sayings; an example might be the phrase ‘It’s cool’, which people often say when they think that something is good, but strictly speaking means that it’s a bit cold.

Some autistic people may not speak, or have fairly limited speech. They will usually understand what other people say to them, but prefer to use alternative means of communication themselves, such as sign language or visual symbols.

Others will have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the give-and-take nature of conversations or talking at length about their own interests.

It helps if other people speak in a clear, consistent way and give autistic people time to process what has been said to them.

 Social Interaction

Socialising doesn’t come naturally – we have to learn it.

Autistic people often have difficulty recognising or understanding other people’s emotions and feelings, and expressing their own, which can make it more difficult for them to fit in socially.

They may:

  • not understand the unwritten social rules which most of us pick up without thinking: eg they may stand too close to another person, or start an inappropriate subject of conversation
  • appear to be insensitive because they have not recognised how someone else is feeling
  • prefer to spend time alone rather than seeking out the company of other people and not seek comfort from other people
  • appear to behave inappropriately, as it is not always easy for them to read what behaviour others are expecting.

These difficulties can mean that autistic people find it hard to form friendships. Many want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about this.

It helps if other people introduce themselves by name, proactively start conversations, speak clearly and use questions that invite descriptive responses (as opposed to ones which suggest yes/no answers).

Social Imagination

Autistic people have trouble working out what other people know and even more difficulty guessing what other people are thinking.

Social imagination allows people to understand and predict others’ behaviour, make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside their immediate daily routine. Difficulties with social imagination mean that autistic people find it hard to:

  • understand and interpret other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions
  • predict what will happen next, or what could happen next
  • understand the concept of danger,
  • prepare for change and plan for the future
  • cope in new or unfamiliar situations.

Difficulties with social imagination should not be confused with a lack of imagination. Many people with autism are very creative and may be, for example, accomplished artists, musicians or writers.

Love of routines

The world can seem a very unpredictable, confusing place.

To try and make the world less confusing, autistic people may have rules and rituals/ways of doing things which they insist upon. Many prefer to have a fixed daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. This can extend to always wanting to travel the same way or to eat exactly the same food.

Changes can cause extreme anxiety. For example, an unexpected delay to their journey to or from work can make them anxious or upset. Putting themselves in an entirely new situation can cause extreme stress for autistic people, and make it very difficult for them to function effectively; they may appear to behave inappropriately in such situations as they struggle to cope with their anxiety. Because of their desire to have ’rules’ and routines’ established, it may be difficult for an autistic person to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the ‘right’ way to do it.

People with autism may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but can cope well if they are prepared for it in advance. The everyday often brings the unexpected, the unplanned or the new. As a result autistic people expend a lot of energy simply attempting to deal with such situations each day.

Making adjustments to enable autistic people to maintain routines can help them feel less anxious.

Sensory difficulties

Autistic people often experience some form of sensory sensitivity. This can occur in one or more of the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Most commonly, an individual’s senses are either intensified (over-sensitive) or underdeveloped (under-sensitive). The degree of sensitivity varies from one individual to another.

Bright lights, loud noises, overpowering smells, particular food textures and the feeling of certain materials can be a cause of anxiety and pain. An autistic person may find certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. Some people wear headphones much of the time, to block out sounds.

People who are hypo-sensitive may not feel pain or extremes of temperature. Some may rock or spin to stimulate sensation, help with balance and posture or deal with stress.

People with sensory sensitivity may also find it harder to use their body awareness system. This system tells us where our bodies are in relation to the environment. So, it can be harder to navigate rooms whilst avoiding obstructions, stand at an appropriate distance from other people or carry out ‘fine motor’ tasks such as tying shoelaces.

Paying attention to the environment is important for autistic people. It may be necessary to have a less ‘busy’ environment for them to operate within.

 In a calm environment, autistic people actually expend less energy just from being in that kind of environment; it is less painful and less stressful.