The definition of autism has changed quite a lot over time. It was once considered a very narrowly defined disorder but is now understood to be a highly diverse condition. Autism is a life-long neurodevelopmental condition which occurs following variations in early brain development.
Autism can bring both challenges and strengths to the individual and will impact on the way in which individuals think, experience and interact with the world around them.
Although everyone is different, autistic people typically share characteristics in the following areas.
Social communication and interaction
Some autistic people might be unable to speak or have limited speech. Whilst others might have very good language skills but still find certain aspects of social interaction challenging.
Autistic individuals might show differences in their own use of, and their understanding of others’ non-verbal communications, such as eye contact, tone of voice, rate and rhythm of speech, posture or gesture.
Autistic individuals might find it difficult to intuitively read, interpret and predict the thoughts, feelings and intentions of other people. They also might need longer to process information or to answer questions.
Autistic people might show differences in how they use language and engage in conversation. Such as they are often very honest, direct and literal. They may enjoy more meaningful and factual based conversations rather than superficial small talk. Autistic individuals can find it more difficult to pick up on implied meanings, hidden agendas or social rules and tend to prefer others to be more explicit, open and to the point with their communication.
Preference for routine, repetition, and special interests
Many autistic individuals have a very strong preference for routine and enjoy having clear rules, systems and order in their lives. They often like to keep things the same and can find change and unfamiliar situations very stressful.
Many autistic individuals can have areas of intense special interest. This will often involve the person having a far greater knowledge in the subject area than most other people. This can also often include having collections of certain objects of interest.
Some autistic people will engage in ritualistic behaviours, other repetitive movements (stimming) or repetitive speech (echolalia). These behaviours can often be calming to an autistic individual when they are feeling stressed, but they can also be behaviours that are simply enjoyable for them.
Many autistic people also experience sensory differences, being more or less sensitive to certain sensory stimuli than others.
Commonly reported sensory differences
- Being hyper-sensitive to noise, such as struggling with noisy and crowded places or noticing noises and sounds that others do not.
- Hyper-sensitivity to textures, such as finding certain clothing or materials particularly uncomfortable or even unbearable to wear or touch, or not eating certain foods due to the texture or feel of it in their mouth.
- Hyposensitivity to pain, such as having a much higher pain threshold than others, or perhaps not noticing when they have touched something hot or bruised or cut themselves.
Every autistic person is different and will have different strengths and challenges. Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world in many different ways and there is no one right way to think, learn and behave. The neurodiversity discourse has enabled people to talk positively about autism and view it as a natural way of being, rather than a disorder.
Everyone experiences ‘demand avoidance’ (resistance to doing something that is requested or expected of you) sometimes. However, here we use demand avoidance to mean the characteristic of a persistent and marked resistance to ‘the demands of everyday life’, which may include essential demands such as eating and sleeping as well as expected demands such as going to school or work.
Although demand avoidance is widely acknowledged as a characteristic experienced by and observed in some autistic people and potentially other neurodivergent, but not autistic, people, there is very little research into it and the research that does exist is generally of a low quality.
Because of this, many aspects of demand avoidance – including how it is best defined and identified; how common it is; why it happens; and support strategies for someone experiencing it – are under-researched and often contested.
If you want to explore getting a diagnosis:
The Cornwall adult autism assessment team was previously known as the Asperger’s syndrome assessment service. We offer an autism assessment service for adults (aged 16 or older) who are registered with a GP surgery in Cornwall and are not currently open to or in need of other specialist services such as a community mental health team or learning disability service.
For those individuals who are already open to or in need of the community mental health team or learning disabilities services, an assessment for autism should be sought from that service as part of their care package, if this is considered clinically appropriate.
Not everyone with autism will wish to have a formal diagnosis. However, there are a number of reasons why a diagnosis can be helpful for some people. For example, some people find receiving a positive diagnosis can come as a relief, because it allows them to learn more about themselves and helps them to understand why they may have felt different and experienced certain difficulties in their life. Having a diagnosis can also help other people in the individual’s life to understand and empathise more easily with some of the differences and difficulties they might experience.
In addition, a diagnosis can facilitate access to more appropriately tailored advice and support from services. It can help to ensure that appropriate adaptations are made in the workplace, where needed, so that autistic individuals can thrive in employment. Having a diagnosis can also lead to individuals connecting with other autistic people, where they can share experiences around how to overcome challenges and recognise and celebrate the many strengths and talents that come with autism.
The overall aim of an assessment with us is to help individuals increase their understanding of any differences and difficulties that they may have experienced throughout their lifetime, as well as to highlight areas of personal strength and ability. Within this, we will be looking specifically to explore whether a diagnosis of autism would be an appropriate explanation for the experiences that have been described by the individual.
Your GP can complete the adult autism assessment team practitioner referral form if they feel it is an appropriate way forward for you. It is important that the referral form includes examples of any difficulties and differences you experience, and clearly outlines why an assessment is felt to be necessary. You may therefore find it helpful to make some notes before your GP appointment to help you prepare for your conversation with them.
Autism Spectrum: Atypical Minds in a Stereotypical World
About having Autism for young people
Women and Girls with ASD
Although autism has historically been considered a predominantly male condition, there is now a growing awareness that the condition manifests itself differently and more subtly in females. In many instances difficulties with social communication can be more subtle in girls and therefore may not always be particularly apparent in the school setting. This can certainly be the case when there are supportive peers in the school environment and when the young person responds well to the structure of the school day and likes to follow rules.
Girls may be more able to follow social rules through observation and girls may mask their difficulties by learning to copy behaviour, ie using skills based on intellect rather than social intuition. They may be quicker to apologise and appease when they make a social error, increasing the likelihood of their unusual behaviour being overlooked or forgotten by others. It is also important to recognise that this can be an exhausting process and can contribute to distress and reduced coping, although this distress may be seen in the home setting rather than in school.
Girls are often more socially aware and socially driven, and so more likely to seek out play and interaction opportunities (whilst often being ‘led’ by peers rather than initiating activities themselves). They may have one special friend with whom they share an intense, sometimes dependent, relationship. As they grow in self-awareness and recognition of their ‘differences’, girls may take greater pains to avoid drawing attention to themselves, for example by being quiet, well behaved and compliant at school.
The following websites and books are specifically for girls / women with ASD:
- Aspergirls: empowering females with Asperger Syndrome by Rudi Simone
- Girls Growing Up on The Autism Spectrum; What parents and professionals should know about the pre-teen and teenage years (Nichols, S., Moravcik, GM. And Tetenbaum, SP. 2009)
- Making Sense of Sex: A Forthright Guide to Puberty, Sex and Relationships for People with Asperger’s Syndrome (Attwood, Sarah 2008)
- The Hidden Curriculum (Myles, Trautman and Schelvan, 2004)
- The Curly Hair Project https://thegirlwiththecurlyhair.co.uk/