Through Their Own Eyes

March 28, 2009

Autism refers to a group of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). The distinctive characteristics of autism are difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or limited interests and behaviour. These characteristics vary a great deal according to the individual, and their severity also varies greatly, from mild to extreme. Indeed, it is likely that there are many more mildly autistic individuals than diagnosed, since a mild disorder may not affect the person’s life much at all. ASDs include disorders with specific symptoms, such as Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder. Over 75 percent of autistic persons are male. Females are more prone to more severe forms of autism, such as Rett syndrome. For more information, see e.g. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm

The reasons for autism are differences in brain structure, although there are controversial opinions as to what causes them. Recently, it has been discovered that people with autism exhibit abnormalities in the convolutions of their cerebral cortex (SA Feb 2009). This means that the communication pathways are disturbed; studies show that “in autistic people, communication between nearby cortical areas increases, whereas communication between distant areas decreases” (SA Feb 2008). This means that these persons tend to focus on irrelevant details, and often fail to focus their attention on more relevant and significant matters.

When I had just finished high school, I worked for a while as an assistant to autistic children at an elementary school. It was a trying experience, but also something that has stayed with me. The autism spectrum includes so many different kinds of cases, and I discovered that even though unresponsiveness and avoiding social contact are characteristic of many autistic children, some of them are extremely sociable and chatty. Each of the fifteen or so children I was helping was radically different from the others.

Linguistic problems exhibit themselves in different ways. Some individuals speak little or not at all, or using broken sentences. Many speak fluently, but have problems forming meaningful sentences. For example, one child I worked with had a habit of asking questions repeatedly and persistently, often changing only one element (i.e. word) of the question. The answers, or whether the questions made sense, seemed of little concern to him. For example, once he asked what was under the ground. He listed different objects and words, some concrete and some abstract. He asked whether there were “Sibeliuses” under the ground. Sibelius, being a dead Finnish composer, is surely under the ground, but that is not what the boy meant, as he used the word in plural. He was possibly listing words he had recently heard. These kind of incidents can be frequent and often seem amusing, but of course they also sadly testify to the lack of connection between the words and their meaning, which defeats the purpose of language. The most startling observation with many of the children was that you could hardly ever tell when they understood the meaning of their own words, and often it was also impossible to tell whether they understood you. This made them unreliable and unpredictable to an extreme degree, and most had to be constantly observed.

Some children are extremely verbal, showing little lack for verbal or emotional restraint. One of the children talked incessantly, hugged people and told them he loved them all the time. He was extremely affectionate and not embarrassed by anything. He was very bright and conversed in a seemingly normal manner, usually understanding istructions. Had it not been for some extremely difficult outlashes and obsessive behaviour, he would have seemed like any child. Sometimes the line is very thin.

Occasionally I was also assisting a girl with Rhett’s syndrome – a severe form of autism typical of girls. She was severely limited both physically and verbally, and she was unable to express herself other than with exclamations, whines, crying and other sounds typical of pre-verbal stage children. One of my most vivid memories is from my first days at the school, when I was left alone with her. She was uneasy with me, because she wasn’t used to me, refusing to do the card exercise we were supposed to practice, and making loud shrieking sounds and crying, as well as fidgeting in the chair. I knew one of the things she responded to best was music, so the only way to calm her down and keep her on the chair was to sing a song she liked, over and over and over again. It happened to be Pippi Longstocking. Every time I stopped singing, she would start fidgeting, and so I sang the song nearly non-stop for an hour and a half, until it was time for lunch.

Working with autistic children, I learned not to take communication skills for granted. I also realised that there is no typical autistic person, every individual is different. This is what makes me think of autistic people rather as having a different view of the world. They are different, but so is every one of us. They may not all be able to function in our society, because they cannot understand the rules. But perhaps they have rules of their own that our understanding cannot grasp.

Sources and more information on autism

http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm

http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer

http://www.nas.org.uk/

Scientific American. February 2009, Volume 300 Number 2.

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