"The autism spectrum is complex and multifaceted."
Parents, individuals with autism and involved professionals need to be equipped with a generic understanding of the autism spectrum. They will also need to continue to integrate new information with personal and professional experience in order to be proactive in their care and support of individuals with autism throughout their life journey.
The autism spectrum is the collective term for a range of conditions that impact on an individual’s social communication, social interaction and social imagination and flexible thinking. Individuals on the spectrum are also likely to have sensory and information processing difficulties that can range from subtle to complex.
The autism spectrum encompasses individuals across the cognitive ability range. In other words, a person may be on the autism spectrum and have a learning disability or may be of average to sometimes, high intelligence.
It can be a challenge for parents and professionals to understand, recognise and respond to the needs of individuals who have an autism spectrum diagnosis. Individuals on the spectrum can also find it challenging to understand the implications of such a diagnosis.
As the term suggests, a “spectrum” signals a very wide range of potential impact and implications. In answering the question “what is autism?” it is important to keep in mind that the definitive answer will very much depend on the individual and how and to what extent autism is impacting on their development and learning. As autism is a lifelong condition that impact will be evident, but likely to change throughout the person’s lifetime.
Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger are the pioneering clinicians who in the early 1940s first began to formally identify children and young people who would today be understood to be on the autism spectrum.
Although both were Austrian, Kanner lived and worked in the USA. Remarkably, within a year of one another, Kanner in 1943 and Asperger in 1944, they both published papers based on their clinical work. Both used the term “autism” to define the presentation of the children who had come to their attention. Asperger’s work remained largely unknown in the UK until a translation of his paper was published in 1991 (Frith, 1991).
Asperger, H. (1944/1991). Autistic psychopathy in childhood. Translated in U. Frith (Ed), Autism and Asperger Syndrome (pp37-92). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217 – 250.
Individuals on the autism spectrum can and often do have other conditions. This can include but is not restricted to epilepsy, metabolic disorders such as Phenylketonuria, sensory impairments and genetic conditions such as Fragile X syndrome and Downs syndrome (Boucher, 2009).
Conditions associated with the autism spectrum are not mental illnesses. It is however recognised that there can be a vulnerability to mental health and well being.
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