What is Autism?
  • Brain connections graphic“Autism.” Odds are, you’ve probably heard the word before, but what exactly does it mean?
    • Autism, which is formally called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a term that typically refers to a wide range of neurological disorders, which means they affect the brain.
    • When children are born, their brains begin a natural “pruning” process. During pruning, the brain eliminates extra connections and neurons that it doesn’t need. Research shows that children with autism are more likely to have a slower pruning process, which means adolescents and children with ASD tend to have more brain connections and neurons than many of their peers. So how does this extra connectivity affect them? One researcher found that it took children with autism about 8 – 9 seconds longer to readjust and turn down their brain activity after an experiment ended, compared to children without autism. This experience kind of feels like always being a few moments behind, or walking into a conversation about 10 seconds too late to understand the joke everyone is laughing about. This can be a common feeling for teens with autism, and it often makes social interactions a challenge. Doctors and scientists are still studying the brain and looking for more information about autism, but this field can be challenging because our brains are all so complex!
  • You’re bound to meet someone on the spectrum eventually, if you haven’t already! Making friends can be difficult for all teenagers, on and off the spectrum, so if you meet someone who has autism, just try to be kind and understanding like you would with anyone else. People with autism may view the world in different ways than you do, which means you could learn a lot from each other! Let’s start by learning more about autism below.
Population Demographics
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder is found all over the world, across cultures and socioeconomic groups
  • ~ 1% of the global population has autism
  • 1 in 54 children in the United States has autism
  • More than an estimated 3.5 million Americans live with ASD
  • ASD is 4 times more likely to be diagnosed in boys than girls
    • Autism prevalence has increased by 119.4% from 2000 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68) and autism diagnoses are increasing faster than any other developmental disability
    • What’s going on with this increase of nearly 120%? Well, we don’t know for sure; health professionals have attributed it to increased autism awareness, better diagnostic tools, and a broader definition of autism, among other factors
What Causes Autism?
  • What a complex question! Right now, it is not clear what exactly causes autism. Researchers are investigating factors like genetics, environmental toxins, and parental ages. Studies have found that people are more likely to be diagnosed with ASD if someone else in their family, like an older sibling, already has it. One pediatric study found that for parents who already have a child with ASD, there is a 1 in 5 chance of having another child with ASD. So, right now we don’t have a straight answer for what causes autism, but scientists think a range of genetic and biological factors may be at work.
Autism Symptoms & Treatments, Facts & Fiction
  • Autism is usually diagnosed in children by the age of three. It can sometimes take a whole team of pediatricians, psychologists, and hearing and speech therapists to rule out other options to determine whether a child has autism. Autism impacts a person’s ability to:
    • Autism Spectrum graphicHave social interactions with others: Teens on the autism spectrum sometimes have difficulty making friends their own age; they may prefer to be around adults or younger children. They could struggle adjusting to different social situations, like transitioning from class to lunch, or from school to extracurricular activities. Also, some teens may be confused about social boundaries, or not understand sarcasm or figures of speech. For example, they may take the literal meaning of jokes or expressions.
    • Communicate with others in age-appropriate ways: Some teenagers on the autism spectrum have trouble communicating. They might avoid eye contact when you are talking to them, and they might not respond back to you. When some people on the spectrum talk to you, their tone of voice may sound flat or monotone. They might not express a lot of emotion in their voice or their face, and you may not know whether they are happy or sad about something. Similarly, they also might not pick up social cues that you normally would by reading other people’s facial expressions or body language. It’s important to understand that none of these qualities mean that this person is not interested in talking to you; they just might not have conversations, or express their feelings, in the same way you are used to!
    • Participate in activities and behaviors similar to other people their age: People with autism sometimes have very particular interests and hobbies; someone on the spectrum may be able to talk a lot about their favorite topics but have difficulties talking about other things. A person with autism might be very attached to certain objects, and hold onto them most of the time. Also, those with autism may do things that may seem different or repetitive; they might repeat words, phrases, or actions. You might see someone flapping their arms, spinning, rocking back and forth. These behaviors could serve many purposes to a person on the spectrum; often times they help an individual process their excitement or stress about their surroundings. People with autism are sometimes more sensitive to things in their environment than people without autism, and can be upset or intrigued by certain noises, lights, and tastes.
  • One of autism’s most unique aspects is that no two people with autism are the same. Autism symptoms vary greatly from person to person, which is why we call it a “spectrum.” So we know autism can be really different for different people, but is it true that all people with autism have super skills and extraordinary intelligence?
    • Pop culture and the media frequently portray characters with autism as super smart, or experts at something. In television shows and movies like “Rain Man” starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, characters with autism can often make speedy, difficult calculations, or recite memorized facts effortlessly. This has influenced many common misconceptions about people with ASD. Most people with autism do not have savant abilities. Although approximately 50% of people with savant abilities (which are prodigious skills in an area like art, music, or math) also have autism, only about 10% of individuals with autism exhibit savant abilities. Outside of savant abilities, 46% of children with ASD have average or above average intellectual abilities. Overall, it’s great to appreciate a movie or TV show, but know the difference between autism fact and fiction! Remember that autism is a spectrum, and everyone with autism is unique.
  • Autism is a lifelong condition, but many interventions and therapies can reduce difficulties in communication and social interaction, and improve the quality of life for individuals with autism. Some common evidence-based practices include social skills training, behavioral therapies, speech therapies, and educational interventions. Effective and personalized treatment is crucial for individuals, families, and overall societies to thrive. But, a sense of friendship and belonging can be just as important to people with autism. Learn how you can help your peers with autism in our “How to Help” section below.
How to Help

In the Classroom

  • Develop patience with your classmates who have autism; remember they might not learn in the same ways that you do
  • Try to recognize areas where your classmates could use your support, and do your best to help them. For instance…
    • If you know your classmate has trouble processing all the instructions, offer your help and explain them step-by-step or in a different way they’ll understand.
    • If your classmate struggles with class transitions, you can offer to walk with them between your classes or help them make a schedule.
    • Finding groups to work in for projects can be intimidating for any student. If you see your classmate without a group, ask if they’d like to join yours!

self-advocates people graphicOutside the Classroom

  • Be a good friend! If your classmate on the spectrum is starting to get overwhelmed, give them the space and time they need. Don’t take it personally!
  • Everyone deserves to feel safe in their schools. If you see any classmate, on the spectrum or not, being bullied, do what you can to stop it. If you don’t feel comfortable intervening, find a teacher or an adult you trust and alert them.
  • Don’t pity your peers who have autism; although you may think you are being kind, many people see their autism as just another part of who they are, and they aren’t ashamed of it. If someone pitied you for just being who you are, like being left-handed or being a brunette, it would probably feel hurtful. Always try to be understanding and respectful of your peers with autism; do not exclude or separate them from groups or discussions.
  • Be open to having conversations! It can be difficult for your peers with autism to start conversations, so take it upon yourself to reach out to them. It could be as simple as asking your classmate to join you for lunch! It’s a great first option to ask about classes, homework, and your teachers. Once you branch out and ask your classmate about their interests and hobbies, you’ll likely learn something new or realize that you aren’t so different from one another. While you’re chatting, remember some of the ways that people with autism communicate differently.
  • If your classmate is doing something that seems strange or inappropriate, or maybe they are misunderstanding an expression or joke, it would be helpful to tell them. But don’t call them out in the middle of class or in front of a group; find a quiet or personal way to let them know what they are missing.