The Struggles of Living as a High Functioning Person with Autism

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Autism is “a syndrome of childhood” characterized by a lack of social relationship, a lack of communication abilities, persistent compulsive rituals, and resistance to change.. How autism disorders affect a person and the severity of symptoms are different in each person. Autism (or ASD) is a wide-spectrum disorder. This means that no two people with autism will have exactly the same symptoms. As well as experiencing varying combinations of symptoms, some people will have mild symptoms while others will have severe ones.

“The way in which a person with an ASD interacts with another individual is quite different compared to how the rest of the population behaves. They tend to lack social skills. If the symptoms are not severe, the person with ASD may seem socially clumsy, sometimes offensive in his/her comments, or out of synch with everyone else. If the symptoms are more severe, the person may seem not to be interested in other people at all. It is common for relatives, friends and people who interact with someone with an ASD to comment that the ASD sufferer makes very little eye contact”, is according to the NCBI. However, as health care professionals, teachers and others are improving their ability to detect signs of autism at an earlier age than before, eye contact among people with autism is improving.

In many cases, if the symptoms are not severe, the person can be taught that eye contact is important for most people and he/she will remember to look people in the eye. A person with autism may often miss the cues we give each other when we want to catch somebody’s attention. The person with ASD might not know that somebody is trying to talk to them. Also, they may be very interested in talking to a particular person or group of people, but does not have the same skills as others to become fully involved. To put it more simply, they lack the necessary playing and talking skills.

A person with autism will find it much harder to understand the feelings of other people. His/her ability to instinctively empathize with others is much weaker than other people’s. However, if they are frequently reminded of this, the ability to take other people’s feelings into account improves tremendously. In some cases – as a result of frequent practice – empathy does improve, and some of it becomes natural rather than intellectual. Even so, empathy never comes as naturally for a person with autism as it does to others.

Having a conversation with a person with autism may feel very much like a one-way trip. The person with ASD might give the impression that he is talking at people, rather than with or to them. He may love a theme, and talk about it a lot. However, there will be much less exchanging of ideas, thoughts, and feelings than there might be in a conversation with a person who does not have autism. Almost everybody on this planet prefers to talk about himself/herself more than other people; it is human nature. The person with autism will usually do so even more.

A number of children with an ASD do not like cuddling or being touched like other children do. It is wrong to say that all children with autism are like that. Many will hug a relative – usually the mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, teacher, and or sibling(s) – and enjoy it greatly. Often it is a question of practice and anticipating that physical contact is going to happen. For example, if a child suddenly tickles another child’s feet, he will most likely giggle and become excited and happy. If that child were to tickle the feet of a child with autism, without that child anticipating the contact, the result might be completely different.

ASD vs. The World

A person with autism usually finds sudden loud noises unpleasant and quite shocking. The same can happen with some smells and sudden changes in the intensity of lighting and ambient temperature. Many believe it is not so much the actual noise, smell or light, but rather the surprise, and not being able to prepare for it – similar to the response to surprising physical contact. If the person with autism knows something is going to happen, he can cope with it much better. Even knowing that something ‘might’ happen, and being reminded of it, helps a lot.

The higher the severity of the autism, the more affected are the speaking skills of the person. Many children with an ASD do not speak at all. People with autism will often repeat words or phrases they hear – an event called echolalia. The speech of a person with ASD may sound much more formal and woody, compared to other people’s speech. Teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome can sometimes sound like young professors. Their intonation may sound flat.

A person with autism likes predictability. Routine is his/her best friend. Going through the motions again and again is very much part of his/her life. To others, these repetitive behaviours may seem like bizarre rites. The repetitive behaviour could be a simple hop-skip-jump from one end of the room to the other, repeated again and again for one, five, or ten minutes – or even longer. Another could be drawing the same picture again and again, page after page. People without autism are much more adaptable to changes in procedure.

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A child without autism may be quite happy to first have a bath, then brush his teeth, and then put on his pyjamas before going to bed – even though he usually brushes his teeth first. For a child with autism this change, bath first and then teeth, could completely put him/her out, and they may become very upset. Some people believe that helping a child with autism learn how to cope better with change is a good thing, however, forcing them to accept change like others do could adversely affect their quality of life.

What is it like to be an autistic individual? Only autistic individuals know for sure. Interviews with autistic people, their essays and books, all suggest that the autistic experience is very different in each of them. Some people are happy. Some people are not happy. Some people have close friends. Some do not. Some autistic individuals, for instance, are extroverts. Autistic people are a lot like the rest of us. They want to be with people they enjoy being around, people who accept them for who they are, people who understand them. They want to eat the food that tastes good to them, wear clothes that are comfortable for them, be in temperatures they find comfortable, do the things they think are fun. They want to be respected.

Special cases of autism

Autism is easily confused with low intelligence, but many children with autism are in fact very smart. While 70 percent of the children diagnosed with autism score below average on IQ tests, many are of normal intelligence, and a few are considered quite bright. Autistics can learn and improve their education and behaviour, and this allows some of them to function as close to normal if not equal in society although most still need assistance with living and job skills throughout adulthood.

Although most autistic people are severely mentally retarded about 10 percent are autistic savants. A savant is a person who incredibly excels in a particular area, such as music or math. A person who has autism yet can play a Beethoven sonata after hearing it just once, or can do complex mathematical equations, or tell you whether December 3, 1956, fell on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Savants may be mentally retarded but they a very strong, specific talent. Savants may also have the ability to focus solely on one specific task, or talent while tuning out the surroundings immediately.

Considering all the abilities in the human repertoire, it is interesting that savant skills generally narrow to five general categories: music, usually performance, most often piano playing multiple instruments (as many as 22); art, usually drawing, painting or sculpting; calendar calculating (curiously an obscure skill in most persons); mathematics, including lightning calculating or the ability to compute prime numbers; and mechanical or spatial skills, including the capacity to measure distances precisely without an instruments, the ability to construct complex models or structures with accuracy or the mastery of map making and direction finding.

Temple Grandin, a young autistic woman, is extraordinarily gifted. She has a remarkable connection to animals and a brilliant mind. Although she was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, she was labelled with brain damage and placed early in a structured nursery school. When a doctor who suggested speech therapy for Grandin. Her mother hired a nanny to assist in the child’s development. Her speech development delayed and Grandin did not begin talking until the age of four. She considers herself fortunate to have had supportive mentors from elementary school and even later. Her mother was very supportive as were her teachers Even so, Grandin states that junior high and high school were the most unpleasant times of her life because of her poor conversational skills. She was the ‘nerdy kid’ whom everyone mocked. At times, while she walked down the hallways, her fellow students would call her ‘tape recorder’ because of her habit of repetitive speech.

Despite these difficulties, Grandin achieved considerable academic success. She earned a degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College in 1970, followed by a master’s degree in animal science from Arizona State University and a doctoral degree in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She then worked as a consultant to companies with large animal slaughterhouse operations, advising them on ways of improving the quality of life of their cattle. She developed an interest in cattle early in life with spending time at her Aunt and Uncle’s ranch and that became her life-long passion and field of expertise in which she put all her time and efforts on.

As a high-functioning autistic person, Grandin has been able to make sense of and articulate her unusual life experiences with rare depth. She has described her hypersensitivity to noise and other sensory stimuli, which can make socializing painful in addition to being dull. She is a primarily visual thinker who considers verbal communication to be a secondary skill. She compares her memory to full length movies in her head that can be replayed at will, allowing her to notice small details that would otherwise be overlooked. Grandin also has an extreme sensitivity to detail and environmental change. Her insight into the minds of cattle has taught her to value the changes in details to which animals are particularly sensitive, and to use her visualization skills to design thoughtful and humane animal handling equipment.

Temple is also known for inventing a very interesting equipment called the hug box or squeeze machine. It is a deep-pressure device designed to calm hypersensitive persons. The therapeutic, stress-relieving device was invented by her while she was attending college. Initially, Grandin’s device met with disapproval by psychologists then but now several therapy use hug machines, effectively achieving general calming effects among both children and adults with autism.

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