There is an increase in the number of people diagnosed with autism. It is unclear whether there are more people born with autism today or the accessibility to a diagnosis is improving. Regardless, estimates are that autism occurs in 1 of 68 births with the prevalence ever increasing. There are many theories regarding causation, from family genetics to environmental influences. Furthermore, it is unclear why more males are diagnosed with autism than females. Is it that more males are autistic or is the diagnostic criteria gender-biased?
Autism is a complex neurological difference that affects individuals to varying degrees. A diagnosis of autism is based on observation and, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM5], affects the following domains in an individual:
- Social – emotional reciprocity range from failure in normal back-and-forth conversations to reduced sharing of interests or emotions, or failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
- Nonverbal communicative behaviours range from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communications to abnormal eye contact and body language to deficits in understanding to a lack of facial expressions.
- Developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships range from difficulties in adjusting behaviour to different situations to difficulties in sharing activities or making friends to an absence of interest in others.
- Restrictive, repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests, or activities exist in at least two of the following:
- Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech
- Insistence on sameness, inflexibility, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behaviours
- Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
- Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment.
To qualify for a diagnosis, other criteria must also be satisfied; specifically:
- Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period of a person’s life
- Symptoms must cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other functional areas.
- These symptoms cannot be better explained as an intellectual disability. Autism and an intellectual disability can co-occur.
The variances in how an individual is affected, lends itself to the commonly stated phrase, “when you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person.” To assist in further differentiation in the spectrum, the DSM V describes three levels of severity based on the level of support required.
- A person diagnosed with Level 3 Autism requires ongoing, substantial, continuous support
- A person diagnosed with Level 2 Autism requires ongoing, substantial, intermittent support
- A person diagnosed with Level 1 Autism requires ongoing, intermittent support
At Focus, we hire individuals on the autism spectrum who are typically Level 1. What you may experience or observe in an individual with autism can vary. The following provides some examples.
The lack of ability to relate to others for autistics can result in social awkwardness and avoidance. They may take things literally and not pick up on social cues and body language. Jokes and sarcasm may be difficult for them. They can be painfully aware of their inability to “get” the situation and may avoid social contact which is not the same as not wanting to connect with others.
Some autistics develop speech early and use language beyond their years, sounding like little professors. Their language can be formal and instructive rather than conversational. Others may never develop speech or experience delayed or regressive speech.
Autistics can have a low threshold for anxiety and seek comfort from repetitive behaviours such as pacing, fidgeting, or talking about their favourite interests.
Sensorimotor processing can also be affected. Autistics can be hypo and hyper reactive to touch, sound, sight, taste, and smell. They may not make eye contact while listening. Some have perfect pitch. If they experience hypo reactivity in motor skills, they may have ineligible handwriting, untied shoelaces, or have clumsy movements. Their gait may be uneven, and the ability to judge where they are spatially to objects or other people may be poor.
In spite of these challenges, autistics offer a different perspective and experience of the world. In their specific interests, whether it is in the arts, sciences, politics, or day-to-day living, they offer strengths and talents that are of value to the world at large. To flourish, they need to be respected and valued for who they are, as they are.
In BC there are 55,000+ people on the autism spectrum: 40,000 of them are adults. Most autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed. With employment, individuals on the spectrum can acquire greater economic independence, contribute inclusively in a meaningful way, and enjoy choices that result in a better quality of life.