Spreading the Word on Autism
Updated: Mar 14
A look into what autism is and how it affects individuals.
By Matthew Sheppard
Photo courtesy of tbs44 from Unsplash.
Social communication difficulties in autistic individuals were first recognised by Leo Kanner in 1943. In his first paper he observed certain abnormalities in regard to social communication including failure to make eye contact or responding to questions and a tendency towards obsessive conversation.
For most people, the hidden language of social cues and body language is something we all gradually learn over time through development into adulthood. These cues are forms of communication that allow individuals to gauge other people and understand true feelings and intentions. For the average person, reading these expressions is something we take for granted. We understand that the raising of the eyebrows indicates surprise or confusion, or that a wide grin would suggest happiness. Nevertheless, this is not a universally understood language.
Pragmatics is known as the appropriate use of language in social situations. Examples include the ability to stay on topic during a conversation and knowing when to let the other person speak, while asking appropriate questions and demonstrating the correct tone of voice for the setting, such as using a quieter tone of voice in a library. Individuals with autism may not be naturally skilled in this area and may require additional support and enhanced communication techniques. In addition to this, the term ‘prosody’ is associated with the rhythm of speech and includes both verbal and nonverbal communication, such as pausing in between sentences and tone of voice used. This encompasses many things, possibly a rising tone would indicate that a question is being asked. Further issues may arise in relation to this, as some individuals may prefer to speak in a monotone voice, on the other hand, others may exaggerate tone dramatically to other’s confusion.
Social cues are processed in multiple areas of the brain, deficits in these areas may be common in individuals diagnosed with autism, ADHD and social anxiety. Recent studies show that individuals diagnosed with the conditions listed have reduced neurological activity in the target areas of the brain when met with widely acknowledged social cues. Studies have shown other key differences between the brains of neurotypical and autistic individuals. People with autism are found to possess a slightly thinner temporal cortex which is the region of the brain associated with processing sounds and speech.
This inability to perceive facial expressions and body language is known as emotional agnosia. This condition is caused by abnormal functioning of an area of the brain known as the amygdala and is prevalent among autistic individuals. This condition is typically diagnosed through the use of two distinct tests, known as the Fauz Pas Test and the Strange Stories Test. These tests are intended to detect deficits in theory of mind, primarily recognising the mental state of others which may be challenging for people suffering with emotional agnosia and autism.
According to a study conducted by Stanford University, children with autism consistently demonstrated superior maths skills compared to non-autistic children within the same IQ range. It was found that individuals with autism were seen to possess larger brain size, fast brain growth, increased sensory and visual-spatial abilities and higher attentional focus.
Although individuals with autism may struggle socially, they excel in other academic areas. According to a study conducted by Stanford University, children with autism consistently demonstrated superior maths skills compared to non-autistic children within the same IQ range. It was found that individuals with autism were seen to possess larger brain size, fast brain growth, increased sensory and visual-spatial abilities and higher attentional focus. It should be noted that this is not something that should be cured, instead autism is something that should be embraced and encouraged to flourish through supported learning and development.
As people with autism may suffer from reduced social skills, it is the responsibility of neurotypical people to alter their traditional forms of communication to be perceived in a clear way to avoid unnecessary confusion. Examples include using their name before beginning a conversation so that they know you are speaking to them and pausing in between sentences, allowing time for them to process what has been said. Furthermore, using less non-verbal communications such as eye contact and body language can be beneficial as this can be difficult to perceive.
Autism awareness month is fast approaching, as it occurs in April with the aim of helping autistic individuals and their families, while offering support through sharing stories and providing opportunities and experiences to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism.