Even with the gift of articulate speech and understanding, some of us frequently misunderstand each other. Sometimes, we’re at odds with the other person’s thinking or simply unable to bridge a communication gap. But amongst are individuals who have it even harder: those who don’t recognise certain ways of human communication like facial expressions, gestures, touch or eye contact. They suffer from a condition that makes social interaction a challenge.
One in every 80 people in the world is born with autism. Yet, hardly any of us know much about the condition. Many even mistake it to be a personality disorder. The truth is, autism is a complex condition to understand, let alone manage or live with. It varies widely from individual to individual, making it hard–even for experts–to describe it definitively. According to the official website of the Autism Society: “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviours and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.”
Most autistic individuals simply have perceptual problems. For instance, they might have great speech and auditory perception, but lack tactile perception.
The key point here is that autism is not just a condition, but a spectrum of issues. According to neuropsychologist Akila Sadasivan, some of the ways in which the condition manifests are deficits in social interaction, deficits or delay in speech and language, and restricted range of behaviours and interests. Given its spectrum, it’s easy to confuse autism with social anxiety, hearing disability and the like, depending on how the condition manifests in the individual. However, most autistic individuals simply have perceptual problems. For instance, they might have great speech and auditory perception, but lack tactile perception. Some may be more tactile and visual, but not good with auditory perception.
Autism is certainly not an easy condition to manage and many probably ask their doctors this one question: “Why me?” “Just as autism is a spectrum, there’s a spectrum of etiologies, a spectrum of causes,” says geneticist Wendy Chung in her Ted Talk Autism–What We Know (and what we don’t know yet). Through her research, she’s found that advanced paternal age at the time of conception is one of the causes of autism in a child. Another cause, she points out, is the use of valproic acid in medication by mothers who suffer from epilepsy. Chung’s research shows that this particular medication affects the critical stage of brain development in the baby, increasing its chances of being born autistic.
While there isn’t enough general awareness regarding the condition, many autistic adults and parents of autistic children educate themselves to manage the condition better. Kamolika Mitra is one such parent. Having raised an autistic son, she’s now a special instructor for other autistic children. Kamolika shares, “When my son Ayan was about two-and-a-half years old, he learnt numbers and alphabets on his own, by reading calendars. He could arrange wooden alphabets in the right order. However, he wouldn’t respond when I called him by his name.”
The degree to which autism can limit an individual’s perception varies. This makes it all the more difficult for the rest of us to understand and assist autistic individuals.
Kamolika knew Ayan could hear well, so she supposed there must be some other problem. In time, she figured out that Ayan could associate his name with himself, but just didn’t understand that he had to respond to it. So, she worked out a system on her own; she got him to look at her whenever she called him and this way, her son learnt to respond to his name.
Some autistic people, like Ayan, might need extra gestures or visual aids. Others might need tactile communication, wherein the other person holds their hand and points to things to help them identify them. “Each autistic person can be very different from the next. The real challenge is to understand what sense they are able to make of the world around them. Sometimes, we cannot even be sure if they are making sense of it,” explains Dr Nalini Menon, who heads the Autism Spectrum Disorder Unit at the Spastics Society of Karnataka.
The degree to which autism can limit an individual’s perception varies. This makes it all the more difficult for the rest of us to understand and assist autistic individuals. But that doesn’t mean they are any less intelligent than us. It’s a communication gap that’s rather foreign to most of us. It requires meandering in the dark, before finding walls that could let us feel our way through it all. It’s easier said than done, of course. But if we intend to meet the special needs of autistic individuals, we’ll need to educate ourselves to be able to bridge the communication gap.