Autism is puzzling even to experts, so it is little wonder that it has given rise to many misconceptions. Here we answer the most commonly asked questions.

Although it was first identified in 1943, there are still many myths surrounding autism. However, public understanding of the condition is crucial in order to help improve the lives of people with autism throughout the UK.

What is autism?

Autism is part of a family of conditions called Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC). It is a lifelong condition but, with the right support, people with autism can achieve fantastic things. People with an ASC may require support in four areas:-

  • Communication
  • Interacting with others
  • Imagination and flexibility
  • Sensory processing

Do autistic people have special talents?

A recent study by the NAS reported that almost 80% of people who filled in the survey who did not know anyone with the condition thought that having autism meant having savant abilities, similar to Raymond Babbit in Rain Man. However, ASC affects each individual differently and to varying degrees of severity. Some have learning disabilities while others have average or above average intelligence. It is thought only around 1 or 2 in 200 individuals with an ASC might have a genuine savant talent (NAS).

What causes autism?

The exact cause of autism is still not known. Research suggests that genetic factors are important. Currently, a great deal of research has focused on locating “the autism gene”, however, it is suggested that there may be as many as 10 different genes involved in the development of autism.

According to Stephen M. Edelson from the Center for the Study of Autism, there is a greater likelihood that identical twins will have autism than fraternal twins. However, the condition is complex. It is likely that other as yet unidentified “environmental” factors have a bearing on the development of the condition. Scientists have yet to fully answer why one identical twin can have severe autism, whilst the other will have a milder version.

What is it like to have autism?

Everyone with the condition shares a difficulty in making sense of the world. Autism is often described as being like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing. Donna Williams, a renowned author in the field who is autistic herself, tells us that for her, autism is more like “one bucket with several different jigsaws in it, all jumbled together and all missing a few pieces each but with a few extra pieces that didn’t belong to any of these jigsaws.”

How do families cope?

Raising a child with ASC places extraordinary demands on parents. In public, people may stare and make rude comments, assuming the child to be naughty. Parents may not have much time for themselves, each other, or their other children. They may make use of respite services which aim to provide an occasional break from responsibilities. A constant worry for many is concern over future care-giving, and so residential communities are an attractive option.

How common is autism?

Until the 1960s, autism was thought of as a rare disorder. However, according to the National Autistic Sociey (NAS), autism touches the lives of around 535,000 families throughout the UK. NAS says autism is approximately four times more common than cerebral palsy and 17 times more common than Down’s syndrome. Boys are four times more likely to develop autism than girls.

What help is available?

There were times in the past when autistic people would likely be consigned to a locked hospital ward or mental institution. Thankfully times have changed. A lot has been achieved over the past few decades, with many autism specific services being born out of parent driven movements just like WAS. Media reports on cases of autistic people, particularly adults, being ‘failed’ by the system suggests that there are many gaps in service provision. There is clearly more still to do. A large proportion of adults with ASC will continue to require some degree of support throughout their lives. Due to the breadth of the autistic spectrum, the kind of support needed will vary. For some this may mean occasional guidance in order to help them lead an independent life in the community whilst for others it may mean full-time support in a staffed home.

How is autism treated?

There is no known cure for autism. The nature of the condition is complex, and many interventions have been developed over the years focussing on special education, behavioural and communication techniques, biomedical treatments, and complementary therapies. However, few interventions have been independently or scientifically evaluated. It is agreed however that structured support and early intervention can make a big difference to the life of someone with autism.