What is autism? Your questions answered

It is a word many of us know but may not completely understand.

Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about autism and its challenges.

What is autism?

Autism is the word used to describe a lifelong difference in a person’s neurology.

Some of the most commonly asked questions about autism are answered below.

It’s very difficult to say exactly what “it” is because it can’t be separated from the person.

Edinburgh University describes it as: “A way of being in the world; it’s a way of processing the things that come into your body (sights and sounds and so on). It affects how you perceive and interact with people. There will also be differences in how you plan and manage activities, and organising that information can translate into different behaviour.”

In essence, an autistic person will see, process and understand the world in a different way from someone who isn’t autistic, for all of their life.

Can you grow out of autism?

In a word, no. There’s a lot of misinformation out there suggesting that autism is a childhood condition, but this isn’t true.

It’s a lifelong difference in neurology. It’s not a disease that can be treated or cured and it’s not something you can grow out of although the challenges and obstacles faced by an autistic person could change, as will the way a person is equipped to handle them.

Girls can’t be autistic, or can they?

For a long time girls were understudied when it came to autism so it was thought that being autistic was purely related to males. However, we now know this isn’t true.

Girls are known to be better at “masking” autism though – which means they adapt better to social environments so their challenges or differences are often not as obvious as they can be with some boys.

I heard that autistic people can’t show empathy or make friends, is that correct?

Replace autistic with the word ‘human’. Humans can sometimes find expressing empathy to one another difficult. But others don’t. Some humans find making friends a challenge. Others don’t.

It is true to say, however, that one commonality shared by autistic people is finding it difficult to be in or read social situations, often not knowing how to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes”.

The flip side is that it’s very common for autistic people to be highly empathetic.

So much so that some people will actually experience pain in their bodies because they feel so much for another person.

Are all autistic children just naughty?

Reality: all children can be naughty. But we think what this one is referring to is the snap judgement offered when autistic children may be struggling to deal with some kind of change in their environment.

While all autistic people process the world around them in a way unique to them, there are some commonalities. Sensory overload is one.

Often referred to as a “meltdown”, if a child is trying to process multiple sensory signals at once – maybe an unusual or unfamiliar environment - this can be an assault on their senses.

A shopping mall, for example. Noise, light, crowds, smells, temperature. Throw in any communication differences also common for autistic children and what do we get?

Often what’s perceived as naughty is a set of responses to unpredictable and overwhelming sensory changes.

Further details are available online at www.ne-as.org.uk/, by following the society on twitter @neautismsociety, via its North East Autism Society Facebook page or by telephoning (0191) 4109974.

More details about how you can support the All To Play For appeal are available here.