What is autism?
Autism is three separate problems rolled into one.
1. Autism is a Speech and Language Disorder. Autistic people do not understand language in the same way that other people do. (I will refer to nonautistic people as neurologically typical or NT's.) They do not learn to talk or comprehend speech in the natural, organic manner that NTs do. These problems manifest themselves in different ways.
Some autistic people will learn to talk at an unusually early age. Their deficits come out later in life, when they have trouble comprehending other people's words. Conversations with a verbal autistic child may be one-sided. They have trouble answering questions about a reading assignment. They can't explain why a character in a book did something or how a character knew something.
Some autistic people learn to talk eventually, but it is a very arduous process. They learn to talk, in the same way as NTs learn a foreign language. They have to translate the pictures in their head and turn them into words. Like NTs in a foreign language class, they need rules, verb conjugations, and lots and lots of practice. They memorize all the words to a movie, because their brains are desperately trying to figure out all the gibberish around them.
Others never learn to talk at all. These kids are so cut off from our world of words that they stop bothering to interact at all. They go into their own worlds and are said to be not "related."
Because autistic people have trouble understanding words and language, they compensate by being especially attentive to visual information. They are human GPS systems. They are glued to computers and videos. Autistic people who have good hand control may become wonderful artists. Others who are able to make the visual pictures in their head move may become engineers.
In the past, scientists thought that verbal autistic kids had a better chance at leading a normal life than children who lead to speak gradually. They don't think that anymore.
2. Autism is a Sensory Integration Disorder (SID). Autistic people are extremely sensitive to sound, touch, sight, smell, and taste. Not all autistic people are sensitive to the same things and in the same way.
Some autistic people are so picky that they only eat three foods. Others can't tolerate the sound of a parade or a loud train. Others gag at the smell of a church. Others pick at the tags on their shirts. They don't like the feel of sand on their feet.
These sensitivities fluctuate. Sometimes a child will be more sensitive than other times. Stress may be a factor.
My son hates the feeling of tags on a shirt and long denim jeans. These sensitivities distracts him in school. He hates when people touch him lightly on the shoulder. He hates the smell of incense in a church. Sudden loud noises make him flee in terror. He stuffs his fingers in his ears during particularly loud movie previews.
Other kids are almost dead to these stimuli. They are less sensitive than NTs. They don't feel pain when they fall and may love dirt and slime. They don't have enough control over their limbs to properly hold a pencil or run in a straight line. They try to have some sensation of feeling by flapping their hands or twirling in circles. The brain needs sensation to work properly.
Some kids will be sensitive about one thing and not another.
Eye contact is a sixth sense. Eye contact is visual touch. Autistic people may have trouble with eye contract; it makes them extremely uncomfortable. Avoidance of eye contact exasperates the language problem, because we take in millions of conversation cues by reading people's faces.
These sensitivities create distractions, stress, and anxiety.
SID problems can decrease overtime. Autistic people need gentle nudges, baby steps, to overcome these problems. However, they probably never go away. Some adult autistic people find relief with anti-anxiety medication.
3. Autistic people are Extreme Systemizers. They like to put things in order and find patterns. They are a human Dewey Decimal System.
Some autistic people, who have lesser deficits in other areas, can use this characteristic to their advantage. They find careers that prize systemizers — computer programmers or librarians.
Others become so distracted by systemizing things that they close themselves off. They may systemize strange things that have no value and really should not be systemized.
My son was an early systemizers of words. He was able to decode letters and written words at an unusually early age without any instruction. However, he was so consumed with systemizing and decoding words that it would distract him from the world around him. In nursery school, they learned to not seat him next to a bookshelf because the words were too distracting; he wouldn't listen to the teacher.
Systemizers may have an extreme need to systemize the world around them. Like OCD, they like to have their bedrooms organized in particular ways or wear certain colored shirts on certain days. They like fixed schedules.
Because the world is not an organized place, this lack of organization will cause some autistic people great anxiety. They find peace in an ordered world. Anxiety then leads to a further shut down.
What Now? Should I Panic?
No panicking allowed. If your child is like this, don't panic. There is a lot that can be done, and lots of kids grow out of the worst problems. You'll find good people to support you. This post has gone on long enough, so I have to cut it short. But if you have a question, leave it in the comment section.