What is Autism?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Autism or Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is “a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior.” Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.

What is the Autism Spectrum?

When most people think about Autism Spectrum Disorder, they think of a spectrum like the graphic strip below; a linear scale or horizontal line that runs from ‘low-functioning’ to ‘high-functioning.’ or ‘a little autistic’ to ‘very autistic”.  To promote more strengths-based language and thinking, we discuss severity by discussing support needs. Instead of high functioning, we say low support needs and lower functioning would be higher support needs.

From: https://the-art-of-autism.com/understanding-the-spectrum-a-comic-strip-explanation

The problem with thinking of the spectrum in this way is that your perception of an Autistic* person also becomes linear. For example, you might think, I am able to have a normal conversation with this autistic person, so they are not severely autistic, and might view them as being “only a little autistic.”

*NOTE: throughout the entirety of this course, we will use identity-first language (i.e., “Autistic people” rather than “person/people with autism”) as it is the preferred terminology among members of the Autism Community and advocacy groups (e.g., Autistic Self Advocacy Network [ASAN], Autism Network International [ANI], etc.)

In reality, the Autism spectrum looks something more like this color wheel…

From: https://the-art-of-autism.com/understanding-the-spectrum-a-comic-strip-explanation

The spectrum consists of many different traits or ways the brain processes information. Some of those traits can create difficulties in everyday life (e.g., communication, daily routines, etc.), but others can be very useful in everyday life (e.g., creativity, hyperfocus, etc.).

This color wheel illustrates how Autistic children, like all of us, have unique traits and no two autistic children are exactly alike. They cannot be categorized into binary groups based on other people’s perceptions of them, or their outward behavior. Distinctions like referring to a verbal child as  ‘high-functioning’ and a nonverbal child as ‘low-functioning’ are false and harmful. Instead of imagining the autistic spectrum as a scale, try thinking of it as a spectrum of colors. All the colors are on the spectrum, but– regardless of where they appear in the rainbow– they can look very different from each other. Just like any typical child, some Autistic children have strengths in some areas and difficulties in others, which can range in severity depending on the task and situation.

Remember that, as educators and childcare professionals, we DO NOT DIAGNOSE! We are the “observers” or “noticers” who notice and report what we see to relevant professionals and family members to best support children and provide them with a supportive learning environment. Childcare providers sometimes spend more waking hours with children (Monday-Friday) than their primary caregivers/families do! It is possible we may notice something that parents do not. 

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