Tuesday 2 April 2019

Autism is A Spectrum

If you have been following my blog then you'll know that ASD is the abbreviation for Autism Spectrum Disorder. But what does the term spectrum refer to?

The term spectrum describes the range of difficulties that people who have been diagnosed with Autism may experience and the degree to which the traits present. Some people may be able to live relatively “normal” lives, while others may have accompanying learning challenges and require continued specialist support throughout their lives.

However when people hear the word "spectrum" many tend to think of the Autism Spectrum as linear, similar to the diagram below. I'll use the old terms of high functioning Autism and low functioning Autism to explain.

A diagnosis of level 1 is equivalent to high functioning Autism or Asperger's as it was formerly known. A diagnosis of level 3 is equivalent to low functioning Autism.

When viewing the spectrum as linear, it gives the impression that an individual can be a little Autistic (high functioning) or a lot Autistic (low functioning) and this in itself poses a problem as an Autistic person’s difficulties are then viewed as linear.

“Oh you’re only a little Autistic because you can have a normal conversation so therefore you don’t have any struggles. You’re fine.”

Likewise an individual can be seen as being very Autistic and not being able to function at all.

But both of these scenarios couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Autism spectrum looks a little more like this … a continuum in which individuals who have been diagnosed with Autism can be either side of the continuum in different areas at the same time.

When thinking about Autism as a continuum, an individual can be highly gifted and yet be aloof in their Social and Emotional Interaction. An individual who is non-verbal may be gifted but not able to verbally express their thoughts and be hyper sensitive to external sensory inputs.

L has a diagnosis of level 1 and level 2 ASD – he is average in his IQ, he is quite social, he was non-verbal up until the age of 3 years and even now will revert to selected muteism when stressed, upset or in sensory overload, his gross motor skills are above average, his fine motor skills are still developing and he is both over sensitive and under sensitive to different sensory inputs.

O has a diagnosis of level 2 ASD and is considered academically gifted, she is aloof in her Social and Emotional interactions with her peers, she is very verbal and has always been very verbal, she is very awkward in her gross motor skills yet her fine motor skills are advanced and she too is both over sensitive and under sensitive to different sensory inputs.

And this is the case for the majority of individuals who have been diagnosed with ASD. Not all individuals sit purely on one side of the continuum. Individuals may have a very uneven profile of skills in that they may have very good skills in some areas and poor skills in others.

Autism Spectrum Disorder really describes many different traits or ways in which the brain processes information. Each person who has been diagnosed with Autism will have a set of traits all in different areas of the spectrum. The areas where they don’t have a trait will function no differently to that of an individual who isn’t on the spectrum, but they may be affected by external circumstances – for example sensory input or during social interactions.

Please keep this in mind when speaking with or interacting with individuals who have been diagnosed with Autism. Please don't assume that an individual who is ASD level 1 has no struggles at all or that an individual who is ASD level 3 is not competent at thinking for themselves. Remember, Autism is known as a spectrum for a reason.

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