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Understanding Autism

You may have heard about autism more frequently in recent years through news or other media outlets, or perhaps you have been following this topic because you or someone you know is affected by autism. The language used to describe autism has shifted to include the word  “spectrum,” meaning that there are a wide range of differing abilities and function levels under the same umbrella diagnosis. Some people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) live independently and function fairly normally, others may need more daily support, and some are nonverbal and must communicate in different ways, requiring more consistent support.

An “Increase” in Autism?

One of the reasons that autism has been receiving more attention as of late is the increased rate of people being diagnosed. But is autism really on the rise? With all of the different ways of surveying and measuring data in research studies, as well as the more inclusive definition of ASD, it is nearly impossible to tell whether there is an actual increase in autism, or whether the ways in which we measure ASD have evolved significantly and thus changed the results. All of this can be scary and concerning to parents. A recent figure suggests that 1 in 59 individuals will be born with autism, according to the CDC. 

Common characteristics of autism spectrum disorder:
  • Deficits in social communication, such as the ability to use functional language or initiating play/conversations.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communication, like maintaining eye contact.
  • Restricted interests/behaviors, for example, showing interest in atypical things (objects that aren’t toys), a focus on lining objects up, or watching the same Youtube video over and over, etc.
  • Having a hard time with change in daily routine (schedule, set up of rooms, etc)
  • Being under or overly sensitive to sensory input (having extremely high pain tolerance, or becoming overwhelmed when things are perceived as too loud or too bright, or seeking more or less stimulation through hands or mouth).
  • Symptoms negatively affect everyday life and are prevalent in early development.

But What About Adults?

Much of the available information available on ASD focuses on kids. This makes sense given that the diagnosis often is given in childhood, and earlier treatment means better outcomes. However, as kids grow up, they “age out” of much needed services. And what happens if a person isn’t diagnosed at a young age? More and more people are being diagnosed as adults. Some find this explanation of their identity helpful, because it fills in the missing pieces and explains some of their earlier experiences. 

How does autism present in adults not diagnosed as children?
  • Recalling always feeling different
  • Wanting to be close with people, but feeling like it never happens
  • Feeling as though people don’t share in your interests
  • Having trouble interpreting subtle messages or body language while communication with others
  • Feeling uncomfortable with eye contact
  • Having ritualistic behaviors
  • Having trouble regulating own emotions and/or feeling scared and overwhelmed with certain sounds or other sensory input
  • Making involuntary noises
  • Being told you speak in a monotone voice or like a robot, matter of factly
  • Being called eccentric or odd
Why Are They Doing That?

People with ASD do things that might look different or even scary to others who don’t understand. There are some potentially disturbing YouTube videos available of individuals harming themselves via head-banging and other unusual behaviors. However, remember one of the common characteristics of ASD: differences in processing sensory input. This means that people with ASD may not feel or perceive things the way that you do. For example, in order for them to feel a touch on their arm, they may require more pressure than a neurotypical individual to get the same experience. This may at least partly explain why some individuals with ASD appear to harm themselves or put themselves in danger–they are meeting some need for themselves, even if it is not in the healthiest way.

Some other characteristic behaviors of ASD may include hand flapping or “tantruming.” A tantrum of a person with autism may seem scary on the surface, especially if they are being loud and physical. However, they are likely just as scared as you are, if not more so. What a tantrum, or emotional meltdown, likely signals is that the person is having trouble regulating their emotions, meaning they are feeling scared and unsafe and don’t know what to do about it. This can be misinterpreted by teachers as “acting out” or showing disrespect in a classroom, when really the student can’t handle the sounds from the overhead lights and thus can’t concentrate on his/her math problems. Realistic expectations, accommodations, and modifications are often needed so that students can do their best work and reach their full potential. Most of the time they are not trying to be difficult. Crying until red in the face is not fun for anyone involved, so having a basic understanding of how some behaviors of ASD are due to overstimulation can be especially helpful when working with or trying to prevent such distressing circumstances. 

What You Need To Remember

People with autism are just that, people. They may behave, communicate, or sound different from you at times, but remember that this is because they have different ways of perceiving and interacting with the world than you do. If you or someone you know has ASD and would benefit from some additional support, reach out to a local doctor or counselor.

At Angelus, we frequently work with individuals adolescents & adults across the autism spectrum. Call us at 724-654-9555 or complete our online form to schedule with one of our therapists. Through counseling we can work on things like social skills, emotional regulation, and self-soothing behaviors. The goal of counseling is not to make autism go away (which isn’t possible) or to mask it, it is to help individuals act in ways that are independent, functional, and comfortable for them. Some people view autism as a part of their identity that they can be proud of. As counselors, we do not try to take that away. We want to help the person with ASD reach their goals and learn to be & appriciate their unique self in the process.

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services

Meet Natalie: 

Natalie Drozda is a Licensed Proessional Counselor that has extensive expereince in working with those functioning on the Autism Spectrum. This has included working with children & families in the home, school and community as well as treating adults at the outpatient level. She is currently working on her Doctoral Dissertation focusing on intimacy practices and bodily autonomy of those on the Autism Spectrum. She is now accepting new adult clients for Tuesday appointments. Learn more about Natalie Here

 Call 724-654-9555 to schedule your appointment today!