What is Autism?

Autism is a pervasive developmental condition. That means that it affects many areas of the individual’s skills (‘pervasive’) and that it has been present since very early in life, developing and changing as the individual grows (developmental). Most current research suggests that autism is actually something that starts to develop well before a child is born. Autism is a continuum or ‘spectrum’ of difficulties from people who are very severely affected by their autism to those who are only mildly affected.

Most researchers are agreed that autism is defined by 3 key areas of difficulty, the ‘triad of impairment’. The triad is most widely defined and accepted as difficulties in the areas of social functioning, imagination/flexible thinking (restricted and repetitive patterns of interest) and communication. Some researchers argue that ‘social functioning’ and ‘communication’ should be one heading and that the third part of the triad should be problems with sensory processing. Interestingly, new diagnostic criteria being developed in the USA reduce the triad to two – ‘social communication and interaction’ and ‘restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities’ (includes sensory behaviours).

However you wish to define the triad, it is certainly the case that people who have autism have a central difficulty with something called ‘Theory of Mind’. Theory of Mind can be defined as the ability to ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes’. It is what allows us to feel empathy for others, gauge how they are feeling, judge their motives and understand that other people have thoughts, knowledge and preferences that are different from our own. Imagine watching your partner hit their finger with a hammer, chances are you will wince and your stomach will flip. That is your Theory of Mind allowing you to appreciate the experience your partner is having and empathise with their feelings.

Theory of Mind is central to the development of communication and social interaction. The whole point of communication is to get an idea from your mind into someone else’s. If you do not understand that other people’s thoughts are not the same as yours, then you will not see the need to communicate. Often, the first job of speech and language therapist is to show their client the value of communication, especially when working with someone who is more severely autistic.

A good and reliable starting point for learning more about autism and getting the latest news on research into the nature of autism is the National Autistic Society’s website.