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 on the autism spectrum 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 [DSM 5], affects the following domains in an individual:
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 5 describes three levels of severity based on the degree to which the individual is affected by autism.
Some on the autism spectrum 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.
Those on the autism spectrum can have a low threshold for anxiety and seek comfort from repetitive behaviours such as pacing, fidgeting, or talking about their favourite interests.
In spite of these challenges, those on the autism spectrum 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.
Most adults on the autism spectrum 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.