What is autism?
Autism is a type of neurodivergence, meaning that it’s an alternative way for the brain to work.
The experiences of autistic people vary widely. Autistic individuals, as with all individuals, have unique strengths and challenges. Some may need a lot of support navigating a neurotypical world while others may require little to no support.
Common characteristics of autism
Given that each person has unique strengths and challenges, these characteristics won’t apply to all autistic people nor will all autistic people experience these characteristics to the same degree.
Communication and Social Interaction
Some autistic children are not talking when their neurotypical peers begin talking or they may stop talking after a period of talking. Autistic children who speak may sound different than their neurotypical peers. Their speech may consist primarily of sing-song repetitions of phrases they’ve heard or their tone and emotional expression may sound monotone and flat. Some autistic children use advanced, “adult-like” language early on.
Autistic individuals often prefer more straight-forward and literal communication. It may be more difficult for them to interpret more subtle social cues or non-literal speech like sarcasm. They often struggle with or avoid small talk but light up when talking about their passionate interests, which they can discuss at length. Bonding over special interests is often how autistic individuals make friends. It’s also common for them to become experts in these areas!
Some autistic people dislike and avoid eye contact or engage in eye contact that neurotypical people may experience as intense. Some young autistic children may prefer to play alone than with peers or they may be more interested in interacting with adults or much younger children.
Sometimes autistic individuals are hypersensitive to sensory stimuli: they hear, smell, or feel things that others do not. They may notice small details that others miss. This sensory sensitivity may cause them to avoid new things, like new foods, certain clothing, or loud environments. Autistic individuals may become overwhelmed by a lot of sensory information, leading them to meltdown or shutdown, and they may need downtime to recover.
At the same time, autistic people are often hyposensitive to other sensory stimuli. They may not react to pain or promptly notice when they are hungry, full, thirsty, or need to go the bathroom.
Preference for Routine/Sameness
Autistic people often thrive with routine and may feel stressed by changes.
Repetitive Behaviors and Passionate Interests
Autistic individuals may engage in repetitive behaviors, such as spinning, rocking, fidgeting with their fingers, flapping their hands, or making sounds, for enjoyment or self-soothing. They may prefer to play with toys like blocks or cars by sorting them or lining them up instead of building with them or driving them.
A comprehensive developmental evaluation can determine whether a person meets criteria for an autism diagnosis. It also identifies strengths and potential areas for support. This evaluation typically involves an interview, observation, structured assessments, and questionnaires.
Schools, HR departments, or insurance companies often require an evaluation before they will provide services or accommodations.
Some autistic people are identified as autistic when they are very young. Others may not be identified until much later because they “mask” autistic characteristics for various reasons. However, high masking is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety and may cause suffering and distress. Rather than pressuring autistic people to mask who they are, we want to celebrate them for their unique perspectives and offer support when they want or need it.
Available Support for Autistic Individuals
Autism support may include:
- Validation – Many autistic adults have already found their people, identified career paths to capitalize on their strengths, and identified accommodations to thrive in a predominantly neurotypical world. All they are seeking through assessment is validation.
- Applied Behavior Therapy (ABA Therapy)
- Behavioral, psychological and psychoeducational therapy – Goals for therapy are identified by the patient and patient’s family with the support of the therapist. Goals may include, but are not limited to: learning about neurodivergence, determining accommodations for home, work, or school, creating structure, reducing co-occurring anxiety and mood dysregulation, and building social support and “finding their people.”
- Medication – Medications can help with cooccurring symptoms such as mood dysregulation, anxiety, obsessive tendencies, repetitive behavior, hyperactivity, and inattention.
- TMS – Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a non-invasive treatment that uses electromagnetic pulses to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), disorders which some autistic people also experience.
If you suspect that you or someone you love is autistic and needs support in Tennessee, contact Athena Care.
One of our Care Coordinators will help you get the support you need.