Teach me about autism

I’ve recently become friends with a lady who has an autistic son. I don’t know much about the disorder other than the characteristic inability to communicate. While she’s really open about it, I don’t want to constantly be asking her questions.

I know that there are different levels of autism. Here’s what little I know about him.
He’s 3 years old. He’s been in speech therapy for a while now and he can talk, but barely. His mother said he has no sense of fear. He doesn’t deal with change well at all. He tends to be destructive.

So what should I know? Any personal experiences anyone want to share?

I am far, far, far, far from being even a remote student on autism, but what you said about the different levels is very true. You can go from autistic people who hardly speak, and can barely function on their own, to people who are fairly “normal” in everyday life, but have some basic autistic tendencies. What are you looking for here? Do you want a general overview of autism, a breakdown of different treatments, where we stand in our knowledge of autism, how you should deal with an autistic child… ?
Just so you know, many people don’t consider autism to be a disability. There is at least one group that says that autism is just another way of thinking of things, and that attempts to “correct” it through clinical therapy or drugs is actually harmful. I don’t know whether or not to agree with this, but I thought you should know so that you don’t risk offending the mother.

Basically I’m looking for anything dealing with autism whether it’s a general overview or personal experience. I know nothing and I’m interested in learning.

It’s very unlikely that a mother of such a young child who is in ST is going to subscribe to the theory that it’s wrong to support a child with autism to change. Most of the people who think that way are self-diagnosed adults ;).

Listen to her and how she approaches her child’s autism. Me, I’m rabid about dietary intervention and supplementation but I also use meds. It gets old fast to have people telling me how I should be doing it – I always listen and only give ideas if I am asked. I only share my rabid theories when I am directly asked.

If you’re going to be spending time with her and her child (especially if it is going to happen at your house) find out what his passions are. A friend of mine has a son who loves buckets and tins. When he was 3, he used to pinch plant pots from the neighbours. When he visits me, he’s at an age where he can ask me for buckets or whatever and accept it if I say no. When he wasn’t at that age, I would have put away any object which was likely to cause distress (within reason of course).

At 3 my younger son was non-verbal and had no fear. At 7, he’s doing wonderfully well. It’s possible for these kids to make huge progress given support – it’s also possible for these kids to be given huge support and make very little progress.

The “Today Show” ran a special all week. Here is their link and they have alot more.


My son is autistic. He’s 8 now and doing very well.
Your friend’s son, at 3, is likely to have very bad episodes indistinguishable from temper tantrums, for reasons largely unfathomable to NTs ("Neuro-Typicals"or non-autism spectrum people.) When those happen, people not knowing or understanding the situation will come to the easy conclusion that your friend is a bad parent, and not dealing wel/firm enough/sensibly with the child. Know differently.
To her child, things that upset him are as “legit” to him as the things that upset NTs, and it can be stuff you’d never think of: It can be the flickering of a fluorescent tube, the noise the garbage disposal makes, or the fact that the throw pillows on the sofa are not grouped by color.
Your friend is never not dealing with Autism. So is her family. It affects everything.
Helping her find a sitter that can deal with her boy even for a few hours might be a god-sent. She is faced with an uncertain future, in which her kid will always be autistic, even after she’s gone. She is dealing with a child who at this point cannot communicate with her very well. She might despair that he ever will. (I remember thinking I might never hear my son tell me that he loved me, or worse, his neverunderstanding that I love him)
If she has other children, they will get less attention than they would otherwise receive. This has an impact.
One of the better analogies I’ve heard that children on the autism end of the spectrum are like visitors to an alien planet - they can’t understand the locals, or make themselves understood. Change is terribly frightening to them. Likely, they’re experiencing a continuing sensory overload. (Imagine yourself at an AC/DC concert, with strobe lights, in the middle of a bungee-jump - all the time.)
Hey, you asked.
Good news - the earlier the diagnosis, the more spectacular the progress.
My son, who was diagnosed autistic at almost age 4 is now holding his own in a regular ed class at age 8 (with some help - and less of that every day). About a year ago I all of a sudden realized I will have to save for college for him after all…

This is the best way to describe my nephew. He is eight and completely non-verbal. He knows a little sign language, and can usually get his needs across through signs and actually leading you to what he wants.

When he gets frustrated, though, you can tell it’s often because he is overwhelmed by a situation and can’t communicate that. He doesn’t like a lot of commotion around him (other kids playing, for example), and will often find a way to get away from it (he absolutely HATES when his sister cries, and will often start screaming himself to cover the noise). His favorite thing, and the best thing to relax him, is a bath. He loves water, and it’s often hard to get him away from it.

He’s in his own world, and doesn’t respond well to people trying to get to him. I know he knows who I am, but he will often not acknowledge me, until he needs something (and can’t find his mother). I agree with the above suggestion to take your cues from the mother, and don’t feel like you have to connect with the boy. It may not be possible for him.

A little supplemental info to the good stuff that’s already been posted . . . .

While we’re a long way from a definitive understanding of autistic spectrum disorders, the prevailing current model is that autism entails a difficulty or inability in forming a “theory of mind” regarding other people – that is, understanding that other people have knowledge, beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. that may or may not be the same as your own, or even that they are people and not merely objects. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to understand or predict the behavior of others. Most of us begin doing this at a very young age and do it unconsciously with increasing sophistication as we mature. These abilities develop more slowly or not at all in people with autistic spectrum disorders.

The analogy of being an alien is a reasonably apt one – everything that happens around you would be more or less incomprehensible, and fear, anger and frustration are common human responses to such situations. Things that are familiar and predictable become essential lifelines to coping with the world; that which is novel or unpredictable is threatening and confusing. This difficulty in formulating hypotheses about what other people want or are about to do seems to be tied in with a difficulty in filtering and selecting the relevant and important bits from the vast range of sensory input with which we’re constantly bombarded; thus noise and tactile sensation can be particularly distressing, as they compete with everything else for conscious attention. Indeed, some theories of autism spectrum disorders regard this as the fundamental attribute, classifying them as “sensory integration disorders”; i.e., difficulty in processing sensory input “appropriately”.

Thus, the hallmarks of autism: impaired to non-existent social and communication skills, preference for routine and familiar objects and (where communication isn’t too severely impaired) topics of discourse, difficulting in understanding and/or using humor (which depends on establishing and then subverting expectations), preference for inanimate objects over people and social interaction, stereotyped and ritualistic behaviors, and increased sensitivity to sensory input (noise, tactile sensation, light, taste, etc.). Some people classified as autistic are extremely verbal, in that they possess a normal or even large working vocabulary and can and do talk at length (even extreme length) about certain topics, but their verbal interactions with others tend to be one-sided monologues, lacking the back and forth flow that characterizes “conversation”. They may say or do things that would ordinarily be considered inappropriate in a given situation, because they don’t understand or appreciate the effect their words or actions have on others, or even that they do have such an effect.

Of course, individuals possess these traits in widely varying degrees, and there’s no real consensus on where the dividing lines between “typical” and “autistic” are; some even argue that the difference between “autistic” and “male” is one of degree, not of kind. My seven-year-old son, for example, will talk your ear off about whatever his pet topic at the moment is, and seems to have trouble appreciating that his interlocutor may not share his degree of interest in the topic. He often doesn’t recognize when someone is trying to change the subject or move on to doing something different, which gets in the way at times in his interactions with others. He’s also more sensitive to tactile sensation than most people. He’s often reluctant and apprehensive about new experiences. Yet he also has a quick wit and an appreciation of humor that indicates an ability to understand other people’s expectations that goes far beyond what would ordinarily be expected in someone with autism, and he’s a genuinely kind and empathetic kid a lot of the time. He’s shown a tendency to ritualized/stereotypical behaviors in the past, but he seems have developed an ability to recognize and moderate them. His interests tend to be intensely focused in the way that’s characteristic of autism, but he also exhibits an eagerness and willingness to please others that isn’t. Having observed and considered his behavior as objectively as I can, as his parent, I don’t think most diagnosticians would conclude that he meets enough of the DSM-IV criteria for autism to be classified as such, he certainly comes close on several of them. He would more likely meet the criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that typically does not involve significant language impairment, but even then he’s borderline.

The advice from others to take your cues from the mother is good; she’s going to have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t with her son. Hopefully the other information here will help you understand him and his behavior.

My sons moderately autistic.

My analogy of the language thing is try to imagine every third or fourth word spoken to you is incomprehencible.

for example: I took my son to go see his Grandmother for Thankgiving. She lives out of state. So we stayed with her the whole week we we’re there. While we were there we went to visit other family members close by. Whilst visiting these other family members when it came time to go back to grandmothers house; My Mom (his Grandmother) says to him “You ready to go home little one?” (meaning you ready to go back to grandma’s house.) He then starts whining “Nooooo!” Me being witness to this whole interaction immediately knew what the problem was; I knew he thought she ment go back to his home back in Dallas. So I remedied the situation by saying “You ready to go back to Grandma’s house?” to which he was agreeable.

I think every case is different as you can see, so yeah, I’d have to say just take cues off the mother when possible.

Not to sound ambivalent or anything, I realize this is a generalization but autistic kids LOVE things that go in circles. Like my kid for example has a MAJOR obsession with ceiling fans. I bought him a toy drill once he wont put that thing down. I also bought him one of those “pistol” fans; It’s like a hand held fan that sprays mist. (People use them in the summer time to keep cool outside.) That’s another toy he loves WAY too much. So I guess what I’m trying to say is if you want to score some brownie points with the kid buy him one of those. :smiley:

And then you went and mentioned ceiling fans…

I’ll start my own thread as soon as my heart stops beating so hurtful.

Thanks for all the responses. I spent the entire day with them today. It took a bit of patience at times, but overall it was a great day. I did notice that we got a bunch of dirty looks from people, mainly grandmotherly types. He does tend to get loud at times and start shrieking.

He actually took to me very well. He liked playing with my belly (I’m nine month pregnant) and kept pulling my clothes off so that he could see it. He doesn’t have too much of a concept of personal space. When we got home he actually kept trying to climb on me. He liked sitting in what little there was of my lap.

I was amazed at how he did act towards me. Several times he did come up and hug me or kiss me. His mother did explain though that after a person leaves he doesn’t even think about them. He never asks for his grandparents or his father who has to leave often because of work. She said it’s like they never existed to him.

I actually really enjoyed being around him today. I wish I had more energy right now so I could interact with him better.

I’ve been curious about autism since I was a kid and my father told me autistic people have special powers or are super geniuses or something. He’s always been a science fiction addict, though, so I very highly doubt this now. Where does this idea come from, though? I mean, is there any truth or proof to it?

There was also a Newsweek article last week and I am reading a book about the mind, so I am not sure which it came from, but there was a phenomenon known as hyperfocusing. Basically the article/chapter explained that there are some things an autistic person may not be able to grasp (personal space, empathy, someone who isn’t there but might come back) and some that they have to focus on (garbage disposal, fan blades, throw pillows). They over focus on some things and ignore others. I kind of think of it like driving in bad weather. You are so concentrated on the road/traffic/weather that you can’t listen to the radio/talk to a companion/answer the cell phone. But both sources also point out that this is only certain forms of autism. I do not know anyone who is personally dealing with this, so it may be a crock.

Another point: Autistics tend not to think or remember with words, but pictures.
Regarding the point made of the inability to integrate the various sensory inputs…I believe the term is sensory disthesia…that the Autistic mind is assailed by a million-and-one things, ALL vying for immediate attention.

Could Autism in a sense be Attention Deficit Disorder on steroids?
Could Ritalin be an effective treatment?

If you want to know what it is like to experience the world through the eyes of an autistic, you might try reading Temple Grandin’s Thinking In Pictures and Emergence. Grandin is a “high functioning autistic”; that is, while she definitely falls within the autistic spectrum she is able to communicate on casual levels to a functional extent, to the point that she was able to earn a Ph.D. and hold a faculty position as well as consult for the meat industry, designing equipment to humanely handle and slaughter livestock. In fact in some ways her autistic condition has given her abilities that “neurotypicals” struggle with–in particular, she claims that her condition allows her to “see” the world as livestock animals see it, and understand what calms them. There’s another book–a fiction novel–called The Curious Incident Of The Dog At Nighttime written from the persepctive of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (which is considered an autistic spectrum disorder). It’s a short and easy read.

Someone mentioned that autism is no considered a “disorder” by some; instead being just a different way of thinking. I think the distinction is largely functional; it is a “disorder” and should be treated if and to the extent that it interferes with necessary interaction, but it should be recognized that it is an inherent part of the individual’s personality, not some kind of environmentally-induced neurosis or psychosis to be “cured”. (In years past, mothers were blamed for autistic children under the accusation that they were “cold” and “unnurturing”.) Autistic children need to be taught in ways that are different from “normal” children; specifically, they need to learn to control their impulses, to allow for personal space and read expressions/body language, and to not let environmental excesses (loud noises, bright colors, body contact) to overwhelm them. On the other hand, they are often quite good at learning repetative tasks and can learn objective instructions; they just aren’t as good with abstractions and social nuances and can’t be expected to pick those things up unconsciously. They are not better or worse; just different.

Autism seems to have genetic roots, and although the specific genotype(s) which cause it are unknown, it does appear to be additive–two mildly autistic parents will tend to have a more autistic child (see Wired link below). It is, as has been mentioned, a spectrum, from a mild difficulty in communicating and reading facial expressions to the extreme of a person who cannot operating in the outside world even with training and conditioning. It is a difficult condition for parents but with much effort (as was the case with Grandin) many autistics can become largely functional in most senses.

There is some measure of truth in this; while many autistics are functionally retarded, there are a significant portion who are astonishling good at some intellectual tasks, especially involving mathematics, memory, and observation, and will score very highly on intellegence tests based upon concrete problem solving. They’ll do poorly, though, on tests that measure abstract problem solving or reasoning ability, as autistics tend to lack “common sense” and have a very poor conceptualization of other people, hence the term “idiot savant”. Not all are like this, or not to the extent of being labeled a “super genius”, but there is anecdotal evidence that autistic spectrum individuals tend to converge toward particular vocations, especially engineering and the hard sciences.


I’ve wondered this myself. I had some neurological testing done last year under the assumption, based on a variety of behaviors, that I had some mild form of ASD/Asperger’s. While a couple of the indicators showed positive, it was the diagnostician’s opinion, based upon the test results and personal interaction that I fell into the ADHD (Inattentive Type) category. This surprised me because I don’t and never did show the “hyperactivity”, i.e. bouncing off the walls behavior that is typically associated with ADD/ADHD. Instead, as a child (and even now) I tend to hyperfocus on things I’m really interested in/obsessed about, and daydream in situations where I can’t focus on something (such as lectures or the long, drawn-out, pointless “interface” meetings I regularly attend.) I also tend to either become overwhelmed or block out environmental disturbances like loud noices, bright visual schemes, and so forth, which fit very neatly into an ASD diagnosis (though there are other behaviors that don’t fit so cleanly). These are also characteristics of some types of ADHD, as I found to my surprise.

Of course, the DSM categories are just conceptual constructions, and the behavior of people isn’t some kind of dichotomy where you either do or do not show a behavior. Most of us occasionally show behaviors that fit into all but the most extreme categories, and it wouldn’t surprise me if ASD and ADHD where part of the same spectrum of neurophysical disorder, or at least shared specific characteristics and causal mechanisms. Our current understanding of what causes these and in general, how the brain works as a gestalt is rather poor, though.