What is Autism?


By: Beth Vaughan

Last weekend, I had an appointment to get my hair done at a new salon in town.  As you might know, this can be a fairly scary endeavor. The place was spotless, well decorated, and I was immediately offered a glass of wine upon arrival. I’m going to like this place. I just know it. I was taken back to Caitlin, my new favorite hairstylist, and we quickly became best friends. As we were playing the get-to-know-you-game, she asked the standard, “So what do you do for work?” question. I actually love this question, because for the first time in a long time, I feel really proud of my response to this question. “I do the Marketing for 7 different clinics that provide ABA therapy to children with developmental disabilities, mostly Autism.”

“Ok, cool! What is Autism?”

What is Autism… what is Autism… what IS Autism!? I have answered just about every other follow up question that you can think of when I tell people what I do for a living. Without a single ounce of hesitation. I stared back at her in the reflection of the mirror. I attempted to answer her question 4 different times. An uncomfortable amount of time had passed, and I was still unable to articulate an answer for her. What words could I use to describe “Autism” to my new BFF?

This question had me thinking for the remainder of my weekend, so I did some research. (Still pretty ashamed I had to do this research; in case you are thinking “shouldn’t you have already known the answer?” So, yes.)

How to Explain Autism to People (in the form of a list, my favorite):

  1. The general definition of autism is: a developmental disorder that generally leads to differences in communication and social skills. It is a neurological difference that can present significant difficulties, but also many blessings.
  2. Understand that autism is a wide spectrum disorder. This means that symptoms vary from person to person. No two individuals with autism will experience the exact same symptoms. One person might have severe sensory issues with strong social skills and executive function, while another may have little sensory issues while struggling with basic social interaction. Due to this variation in symptoms, it is hard to generalize this condition.
  3. Be aware of communication differences. Some individuals with autism find communicating with others to be very difficult. Some common communication issues linked to autism include:
    • Unusual or flat tone of voice, creating odd rhythms and pitches
    • Repeating questions or phrases (echolalia)
    • Difficulty expressing needs and desires
    • Taking longer to process spoken words, not responding quickly to instructions, or becoming confused by too many words spoken too quickly
    • Literal interpretation of language (confused about sarcasm, irony, and figures of speech)
  4. Understand that people with autism interact differently with the world around them. When speaking with an individual on the spectrum, you may find yourself wondering if they are really paying attention to you, or even care that you’re there. Don’t let this bother you. Keep in mind that:
    • It is not uncommon for these individuals to appear disinterested in their surroundings. They may simply not be aware of or interested in the people around them. This makes it difficult to connect with others.
    • He/she might listen differently. For example, eye contact may feel very uncomfortable and distracting to them, and they may need to fidget in order to focus. Thus, what looks like inattentiveness is actually them making modifications so they can listen better.
    • This person may appear as though they don’t hear someone speaking to them. This may be due to auditory processing slowness, or too many distractions in the room. Offer to move to a quieter place, and give pauses in the conversation to let them think.
    • Children with autism may find it challenging to play with others, because it involves difficult social rules and/or overwhelming sensory experiences. They may find it easier to disengage.
  5. Individuals with autism generally enjoy structure. They can create highly structured routines for their day. This is because they can be easily startled by unknown stimuli, and the certainty of a schedule feels more comfortable. People with autism may:
    • Follow a strict routine.
    • Find unexpected changes very distressing (e.g. change in school environment).
    • Use a comfort object to help deal with stress.
    • Place things in order (e.g. lining toys up by color and size).

This is obviously a much lengthier response than I would have given last weekend, but this information will certainly help me respond, with confidence, when asked “what is autism?” in the future.