What Is Autism
Autism or autism spectrum condition (ASC) is a spectrum of neurodevelopmental conditions characterised by difficulties with social communication, social interaction, and social imagination (Wing & Gould, 1979). These may coincide with restricted repetitive routines and behaviours, strong narrow interests, unusual thought, and difficulties coping with change. ASC is the name for a range of permanent characteristics that affect the way a person experiences the world, interacts with people and processes information.
You may have come across different ways in which people refer to autism, autism spectrum conditions (ASC) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The following labels are the most appropriate sub-groups of autism or ASC, but these may change over time.
Classic autism typically involves an associated learning disability with significant impairment of intellectual ability. This is sometimes referred to as low functioning autism. People diagnosed with classic autism are likely to present with more severe characteristics and may lack verbal communication skills or have considerable difficulty understanding language and social communication. They will certainly have experienced a delay in the development of language and in other areas of development. They are likely to need support with general everyday activities.
High Functioning Autism
People diagnosed with high functioning autism (HFA) will have average or above average intelligence, but will have experienced some delay in their language development and may experience difficulty in processing certain types of cognitive or sensory information. Individuals with HFA tend to struggle in social situations through lack of eye contact, lack of or too much speech and a poor awareness of the social context and those around him/her.
Asperger syndrome (AS) is similar to and often used interchangeably with High Functioning Autism (HFA) People with AS will also have average or high intellectual abilities, but struggle with social situations and may have difficulties associated with other autism spectrum characteristics. However, they are unlikely to have shown the distinctive delay in language development seen in people with HFA. For this reason difficulties may not be apparent until a little later in childhood and are often accompanied by a setback in the development of skills after the first two to three years of development.
The term Asperger Syndrome is likely to be removed from the future diagnostic manuals (e.g. the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) is not expected to include the term when it is released in May 2013. This is because clinicians believe that autism spectrum conditions can be diagnosed regardless of severity and regardless of differences in ability.
Asperger syndrome is a term that people with such a diagnosis have come to feel comfortable with, giving a sense of identity as distinct from neuro-typical people The diagnostic change in the DSM V does not mean we cannot describe someone as having Asperger syndrome.
What support can a person with autism be entitled to?
Autism is a complex condition and the characteristics can manifest in very different ways for different people with an autism diagnosis. Historically, public sector services have not tended to focus specifically on autism diagnostic criteria but on more general aspects of health and social care provision, including learning disabilities and mental health. Therefore people with autism were more likely to receive support if they had critical or substantial social care needs or an associated learning disability or mental health condition.
With growing autism awareness, through autism advocacy, research, development and training and the work of organisations such as the National Autistic Society and the initiatives of people with autism and those who support them, this culture is changing. Following the government’s Autism Act (2009) and the Adult Autism Strategy (2010) all local areas have been working towards appropriate diagnosis and post diagnostic support for people with autism; improving access to mainstream health and social care services; and in supporting people with autism in accessing the support they need in areas such as housing, education and training and employment. There are also a growing number of local and national autism support networks and social enterprise schemes.
Autism is not a long-term illness, mental health illness or a learning disability. However, some people with autism may also be co-diagnosed with an associated physical or mental health condition or learning disability in which case they would be offered appropriate assessment and treatment for this condition. Staff delivering interventions for coexisting mental health problems should have an understanding of the core symptoms of autism and their possible impact on the treatment of coexisting mental disorders; they should also consider seeking specialist advice on any adaptations required for people with autism (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, NICE 2012)
How We Can Help Now
Information about autistic spectrum conditions is constantly evolving. At PFA we aim to keep in touch with new developments through local and national networks and through our links with autism researchers and people whose lives are affected by autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. This helps us to design and deliver a range of bespoke services, which are current, relevant and drawn from best practice. For more information about any of our services click below: