Autism is a developmental disability that affects how a person communicates, interacts, and relates to other people and how they make sense of the world around them. People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD's) often have problems processing, organizing and using information received by their senses. The neural pathways transmit information from the world around them to the senses and this information can be received in a disorganised manner.
History of Autism
Autism is the English translation from New Latin of 'Autismus' that was derived from the Greek word 'autos' – meaning 'self', coined in 1910 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler. He used it to refer to 'autistic withdrawal of the patient' in his definition of the symptoms of schizophrenia.
In 1938 the Austrian Dr Hans Asperger adopted Bleuler's use of the word Autism as he investigated ASD's. He started a school for children with ASD's which was bombed and destroyed during WW2 and his work was not known outside Germany and Austria until Dr Lorna Wing, co-founding parent of the NAS (National Autistic Society, founded in 1962) wrote a paper naming his work 'Asperger's Syndrome'.
In 1924 Dr Leo Kanner emigrated from Austria to the USA and his work in the USA, using the word Autism was introduced in 1943.
Asperger's or Autism?
My understanding has been that a person with Asperger's Syndrome may appear quite 'normal' for a time and only after spending some time with them might you notice that there were some differences in behaviour / thought / processing / interaction, whereas with a 'Kanner Autistic' the differences were a little more noticable immediately.
On a rainbow of spectrum the Asperger's and Kanner Autistic person is on the 'higher functioning end' of the spectrum whereas the profoundly autistic person with whom we have yet to learn how to communicate with is on the other end of the spectrum.
People with ASD also often have other challenges including digestive disturbances, motor co-ordination and fine motor skills necessary for writing, doing up buttons, zips and shoe laces and using cutlery.
Why does Autism happen?
There is on-going research into the causes of Autism, current thought is that there could be a genetic pre-disposition that could become triggered by an event / trauma or an illness / virus either pre or post-nataly. This theory supports my own experience with my 2 children: My 1st child was a fantastic pregnancy, and was born perfect but changed and was never the same after her 1st immunizations (given in the USA, a different program to the UK). My second child, a son, was born with several complex challenges; during my pregnancy I had struggled for the first time in my life with anaemia and had to consume vast amounts of supplements to keep my Hb level up
Difficulty in reading facial expressions
People with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome have difficulty – to different degrees – in reading facial expressions, tones of voice, body language and picking up on social cues – this is a startling 93% of communication.
We gather information about what we are experiencing in the moment from all of our senses and when we are unable to interpret the messages our senses are sensing it can be very confusing and frightening. I believe that people with ASD's, functioning on just 7% of communication, trying to use that 7% to make sense of the world around them do, for the most part, an absolutely stunning job.
Hypersensitive hearing can be a challenge when someone can hear what is being said in a conversation taking place in another street and thinks that it is about them.
It can also be quite overwhelming to have hypersensitive hearing and not be able to 'switch off' noises that can be driving the hearer to distraction such as rustling paper or the hum of a florescent light or a ticking clock. A loud noise can overwhelm the senses and cause them to go into a temporary overload which could result in a 'freezing' or a stumbling or falling over.
The sense of sight can be affected by strobes, lasers, bright lights or even sunshine causing pain or startling and or stumbling or falling. Many and complex disturbances of the sense of sight can be experienced. Dyspraxia can also be experienced, as can Dyslexia.
The sense of smell can be hypersensitive and become overwhelmed by the slightest smell, or hypo-sensitive and not available to give helpful or vital information such as not registering body odours or being able to detect food that has gone off, or smoke from a fire close-by.
The sense of taste can be similarly hyper or hypo-sensitive and some children and adults with Asperger's Syndrome can be very picky eaters or can be fixated on eating one particular food exclusively for a period of time only to suddenly go off it and not like it any more.
Many people with Autism may experience intolerances of different foods, such as Gluten and Casein intolerance – which is the lack of the enzyme to convert the protein in Gluten and or Casein into something that the body can use as nourishment and rather the body converts these proteins into an opiate like substance.
Many people with Autism have IBS and other digestion problems which make sense when looked at in the context of Stress.
The sense of touch or tactile may be the most obvious of sensory difficulties when a person with Autism cannot bear to be touched or hugged or held or even brushed against in passing in a corridor the sensation can be overwhelming. Sometimes there are just areas, like a part of the arm for example, where touch is unbearable. Conversly some people really like the feel of something tight around them - Dr Temple Grandin says how she like the feel of the cattle squeeze and this experience led her to become the most respected designers of humane farm animal equipment in the USA in addition to her fame as an author and speaker on Autism.
Sometimes corsets can be a helpful garment to get that feeling of being hugged, and there are specially designed vests and sweatshirts that inflate to give a hugging sensation.
In my family I have found animal therapy to be most useful, on a daily basis, for tactile stimulation, stress release and even for responsibility and self esteem building.
The skin is our largest organ and as such has a much greater area to potentially cause distress. Therefore consideration to anything that is put on the skin is helpful, such as soaps, creams, washing powder, etc. to not cause irritation.
Fabrics are very important for how they feel and breathe and sound in addition to how they wash, and in my experience the more natural the fibre the less distressing reaction my children had to it. I remember as an infant I put my daughter in a baby-grow that had polyester in it and she went bright red and howled. When I changed her into 100% cotton she was calm. This taught me to look carefully at the fibre composition of anything coming in contact with my children's skin.
The expression and experience of emotions and feelings can be overwhelming, hypersensitive and hypo-sensitive. In the evolution of our human brain the logic of thought and reason developed after emotions. For someone who thinks logically, concretely, in black and white, the concept of feelings and emotions with their unpredictability and difficulty to interpret and control can be very frightening
When any of the senses are disrupted this can be very stressful and a person may not be able to interpret the emotion or feeling that they are experiencing and this can lead to a tantrum or meltdown. This in turn is not helpful, nor is it good for self esteem.