By: Sabiha Toni
The bell rings, signaling the end of a long, drawling computer science class.
“Wait! I just have one more question!”
We groan. This was Adam, the technological enthusiast, the introductory programming genius. His hand was always in the air. His inquisitiveness was a nuisance, unless of course the knowledge he absorbed came into use at the end of the semester, when we all lined up for his help for our final projects. We greeted him in between classes, stopped for a small chat at times.
At the end of the semester as valedictorian of the Class of 2011, Adam described—to many of our surprises—his struggle with Asperger’s.
Good with numbers.
There is a particular combination of characteristics that are expected of an autistic individual—a certain demeanor about them, a certain personality, and certain similarities to a certain famed autistic pop-culture character. What happens with situations such as Adam’s in which the signs don’t appear as blatant? The problem with such a rigid set of expectations is the fact that autism is not simply an assemblage of “red flags” but a variation of multiple signs and symptoms with different degrees of effect, which contributes to the difficulty in pinpointing the causes of the disorder.
To cover such a variety of combinations, the term ASDs, or “Autism Spectrum Disorders” was established (Johnson 2007). Because ASDs are neurodevelopmental disorders—meaning that they impair the development of the brain—it is common to find symptoms in three broad areas:
- Social Interaction: People with autistic disorders tend to avoid social contact with others, or lack interest in interacting with the people around them. These signs can be picked up from a very early age, even in the first year of life. Many infants may not be responsive to others or avoid eye contact. As they grow, toddlers can show disinterest in intermingling with peers, taking turns with them, and playing with them (Volkmar, 2005). These social impairments often make it difficult for those with ASDs to create and maintain meaningful relationships.
- Communication: Communicative limitations in individuals with autism are prominent and also tie-in to their social skills. For example, autistic people often do not have a desire to communicate. They are often quiet and do not attempt to compensate through gestures, signifying that there is no intent to communicate. About one fourth of autistic children begin to learn and say words but eventually stop speaking them (Johnson, 2007). Conversational language may be slow to develop in certain types of ASD and autistic individuals often babble incoherently or parrot words, sentences, jingles, etc. (Johnson, 2007).
- Behavior: Stereotyped behavior, which is characterized by repetitive or rhythmic actions with no purpose or function, are common among people with autism. For example, many will flap their hands, pace, or rock from side to side continuously (Rapin, 2008). Habits and compulsions are also key characteristics of most people with autistic disorders. They are often very averse to interruptions in an activity or changes in routine (Johnson, 2007).
Many of these signs can be seen in those with autistic disorders, but not all need to be present to diagnose an individual with an ASD. Because there is such a range in the combination of signs and symptoms, and because many of these tendencies are not unique to ASDs (for example, normally developing toddlers may also flap their hands), it is not appropriate to class every patient under one disorder. Different signs vary in the degree of severity in different types of ASDs. Thus, it is important to take into consideration impairments in the three general areas above, but not implement them universally as signs of all individuals with autism.
Johnson, CP. Early clinical characteristics of children with autism. In: Gupta, V.B. ed: Autistic Spectrum Disorders in Children. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 2004:85-123.
Rapin I, Tuchman RF. Autism: definition, neurobiology, screening, diagnosis. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2008;55(5):1129–46.
Volkmar F, Chawarska K, Klin A. Autism in infancy and early childhood, Annu Rev Psychol. 2005;56:315—36.