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What Is Autism?

Mar 2014

This is “Autism For Beginners”—just to correct some common myths and misconceptions.

What Autism Is Not: What Autism Is:
Autism is not a disease. Autism is a way of being in the world, it’s a character.
Autism is not a psychological problem. Autism is an “alternative brain wiring”. It is a way of information processing and part of neurological diversity.
People on the autism spectrum are not all the same. Non-autistic people differ from each other, so why autistic people are supposed to be a homogenous group? Autism is a broad spectrum of different abilities, ways of living, philosophies of life etc. Some people think that autistic people differ among each other more than non-autistic people, because they are less prone to follow peer pressure, which requires a certain amount of conformation. Rita Jordan writes: “Individuals with autism may be more different from one another than others because of their lack of
socialisation into a common culture”.
Asperger’s syndrome and autism are not clearly distinguishable from each other. Asperger’s syndrome and autism are a seamless continuum. Some people get diagnosed with autism in their childhood and as adults they are diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. They have “moved” on the autism spectrum.

Often you can’t make out a difference between high functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome in adulthood; diagnostically they are differentiated only by the presence or absence of a language delay. On the other hand high functioning autism and “classical” autism are not clearly distinguishable: diagnostic differentiation is done by IQ and this concept has proved very unreliable, especially with regard to autism. People appear different in their way of being autistic and their abilities—but they are all autistic.

Autism does not result from deficient education of a child. Autism is not caused by emotional negligence, emotional stress, abuse or trauma. Autism is caused genetically. The theory that autism was caused by “cold”, emotionless mothers, arised from a generally biased view on autism on the one hand and from the fact that some mothers of autistic children are on the autism spectrum themselves on the other hand (fathers are, too, but they were only referred to as “engineers”—which tells much about the gender notions behind it). For an autistic child it is a big luck for the most part to have parents who are on the autism spectrum themselves, because they can understand the child much better than non-autistic people could.
To non-autistic people the behaviour of the parents might look strange and the problems of the child are traced back to that. However, autism has to do nothing at all with the way a child is raised. You can raise a non-autistic child as good as you can, s_he will never become autistic.
Autism is not rare. A new study came to the conclusion that more than one of hundred persons is on the autism spectrum.
Autism is not only about children. Autistic children don’t suddenly stop being autistic by the age of 18. Autistic children grow to be autistic adults.
There is no “normal” person behind a “wall of autism”. Autism is an integral part of an autistic person. Autism is not separable from the personality of an autistic individual. Autism colours every perception. And those are beautiful colours. Autism influences the way a person thinks, senses, perceives, reacts and interacts. To wish that autism would diasappear means to wish that the person was somebody else.

And, anyway, autism is not a “wall”.

You can’t “cure” autism. You can’t cure autism, because

  1. Autism is not a disease.
  2. Even if autism were a disease, there wouldn’t be any treatment to “make autism disappear”.
  3. Even if this were possible, most people in the autism spectrum would not want to be ““cured” because autism is an inherent part of their personality and a “cure” for autism would mean a destruction of their personality.
Autism is not a tragedy. Autism is often viewed negatively, especially when autistics don’t speak—maybe because most of them lack opportunities to express their own opinions about it (and usually nobody asks, because people usually think they already knew the answer). There are autistic people who started speaking by the age of six oder even twelve years, or people who communicate in other ways, and have a clear recall of the time they didn’t speak; most of them view this time neutral or positive.
Though people on the autism spectrum live in our society in a hostile environment (overloading, incomprehensible, impatient and generally arranged for non-autistic people) and autism is constantly pathologized, many of them share a positive view on being autistic. Many autistic people enjoy being autistic and would not want to be “cured”. You can be autistic and happy, even in this society.
Autism is not a new phenomenon. The first detailed description of a child that we would call autistic today, was written in 1799 by Jean Itard (“the wild boy of Aveyron”).
Autism does not mean not being able to speak. Most people on the autism spectrum do speak. The diagnosis Asperger’s Syndrome is applied when autistic children display no speech delay, in other forms of autism speech is considered delayed. Some children start speaking by the age of three, others by twelve, some never speak but communicate in other ways, such as by pictures, sign language oder computer.
Wenn an autistic person learns to speak that does not mean, that they are no more autistic. Autism is persistent. But autistic people do learn (everybody learns); many autistics learn to speak and some of them learn to appear “normal”, i.e. to not match the stereotype most people use to have about autism. Still they are autistic; their perception, their ways of thinking are and will allways stay autistic.
You can’t tell they are autistic from a hundred yards. Autistic people look like any other people do. You wouldn’t spot an autistic if you encounter one. You might even be acquainted with one (or several) autistic(s) and you don’t even know it (and maybe they don’t know either).
Autism is not a cognitive disability. There are many very intelligent autistics. Non-speaking people on the autism spectrum are often intelligent either.
Autism does not mean intellectual giftedness. There are highly gifted autistics along with people of average intelligence and some with a learning disability. The intellignce distribution on the autism spectrum is probably the same as it is among non-autistic people, it’s just the kind of intelligence that seems to be different.
Autism does not mean to have an exeptional talent like Rain Man as a portray of a “savant”). Savants are very rare. Few autistic people do have abilities which are so exeptional, that they are classified as savants. Many others don’t. There are non-autistic savants either, although on the autism the frequency of savant abbilities appears to be higher than average. Many people on the autism spectrum have extraordinary abilites which are considered less spectacular.
Autism does not mean a general rejection of social contact. Many autistic people like to make friends but either they don’t know the neurotypical ways of socialising or maybe they don’t like to socialise in neurotypical ways, but would socialise in their own way. Some autistics don’t want to socialise with others because those are too loud and disturbing. Until now, we don’t know much about how people on the autism spectrum get along with each other because they don’t have yet many opportunities to meet each other. All people on the autism spectrum need “alone time” to relax.
Autism does not mean not to be able to go to school. All children on the autism spectrum do learn. Because they learn differently and schools are made for non-autistics, they often need or would need accommodations to learn and to tap their full potential. However, most students on the autism spectrum go to regular schools and are often not identified as autistic.
Autism does not mean to be not able to live independent. It might be true for some people on the autism spectrum, yet most autistic people live independent.
Consider that every person needs some kind of assistance or support from others. Nobody lives as Robinson Crusoe. The amount of support one person needs varies individually. Same on the autism spectrum. Autistics just need another kind of support or assistence. The point is that people who need whatever kind of support can live independent.
Autism does notmean to have no feelings. Autistics have feelings for other persons, however they often do not express them in a usual way. Probably they tend to form rather strong relationships with few persons than superficial relationships with everyone. Many autistics make friends with other autistics and generally prefer people who share their interests. There are also autistics who live in happy relationships.
Autism does not mean to lack imagination. People on the autism spectrum often have a vivid, creative and unique imagination. Some autistics don’t necessarily turn their imagination to social situations or they might do that in unusual ways. If children on the autism spectrum don’t play “to act as if” games it is often said that they lack imagination, yet they just express their imagination differently. By the way, there are also autistic children who do play “to act as if”.
Not all people on the autism spectrum think in pictures. Visual learning might be more prevalent on the autism spectrum than in the average population (though we don’t really know), but it’s definitly not true that all autistics think in pictures. And there are many non-autistic people who think in pictures, too.
Not all people on the autism spectrum love math and numbers. There are autistic people who are great mathemathicians (Richard Borcherds, professor in Berkeley and winner of the Fields Medal is one of them). But there are many people on the autism spectrum who don’t like math and some of them struggle with math at school.

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