The autism spectrum is an umbrella term used to describe a community of people who live with a developmental disability. Autism, in itself, affects anyone on the spectrum when it comes to matters of social communication skills, their perception of how to socialize and recognize patterns of repetitive behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every 59 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to 2013, there were four different types of autism that a person could be diagnosed with. Including the most common type, Asperger’s Syndrome, there is also pervasive developmental disorder (unless otherwise specified), childhood disintegrative disorder, and autism. In 2013, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM), released its fifth edition by the American Psychological Association (APA) and at that point, the aforementioned types were all condensed into one official diagnosis:Autism Spectrum Disorder.
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American Journal of PsychiatryThe decision to modify the criteria for the diagnosis of ASD (i.e. getting rid of the sub-types such as Asperger’s and forming a generalized diagnosis of autism) has been received with controversy within the psychology profession. This is because select autism awareness groups and other experts are concerned that changing the criteria will result in certain people on the spectrum becoming ineligible for service support due to the change in their diagnosis. However, according to the , the newly established criteria for diagnosing ASD are unlikely to ostracize anyone that has already been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and/or Pervasive Developmental Disorder (unless otherwise specified).
As far as the social communication symptoms are concerned, people on the spectrum experience difficulty with social cues, both verbal and non-verbal. Examples include: making eye contact with the person they are talking to, reading body language and facial expressions, and lacking the ability to hold a back-and-forth conversation (e.g. discussing themselves and their specialized area of interest, another symptom on the spectrum). Other symptoms of that nature include a perceived unawareness of other peoples’ feelings as well as issues with their emotions and how to properly express them. Certain people on the spectrum do not have the ability to speak at all, or speak very minimally, while another related symptom is speaking with an unusual-sounding tone/rhythm or sounding robotic in their delivery of words.
As far as the repetitive behaviors are concerned, people on the spectrum may exhibit a behavior known as hand/arm-flapping, which is a motor mannerism designed to release tension due to how the spectrum causes the mind to process information, a sensation known as “sensory overload.” There are other physical movements associated with the spectrum too, such as rocking and spinning. If a person on the spectrum has deviated from a daily routine of theirs for whatever reason, it can get uncomfortable for them.
The most common treatments for a person on the spectrum are programs such as speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy where children can learn communication skills and how to correct inappropriate behaviors they may exhibit. There are also medications that can minimize the symptoms of ASD, but there is no medication to totally take the condition out of the person’s mind; it is a lifelong disability. However, it is also known that people on the spectrum, in some cases, can be provided with enough support to be independent and function within the typical population. There are well-known individuals in pop culture who are known to be on the spectrum (e.g. Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado University who has Asperger’s Syndrome and is an advocate for those on the spectrum Satoshi Tajiri, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and turned his specialized interest in insects into the Pokemon franchise; and actor Dan Aykroyd, whose diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome was part of the inspiration for the 1980’s film, Ghostbusters).
Overall, Autism is becoming more and more acknowledged in society, and as the typical population becomes more understanding of it, people on the spectrum will be able to make an easier transition into a happier and mentally healthier life. There are certain large corporations that are hiring people just for being on the spectrum (e.g. Microsoft, SAP) to show diversity in the workplace,to help those on the spectrum feel as if they are included, and to give them a platform with which to fulfill their potential and showcase their unique abilities in a workplace environment. It will take time, but acceptance of the spectrum is absolutely possible, and in some cases,already a reality.
Michael Westwood is a 25 year old college graduate from Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Independent of being a contributor to Step Up, he is looking to pursue a career in professional writing of some type. His hobbies include watching professional wrestling (e.g. WWE and other promotions) and watching select TV sitcoms from today's television (e.g. Big Bang Theory, The Goldbergs) and classic programs as well (e.g. Seinfeld, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond). He also has an ongoing online forum designed to inform people about the autism spectrum called "Ask Mike," which is part of an autism awareness group called All 4 Autism, which is based in Florence, South Carolina.