Local View: Autism, mental health don't have to be taboo
From the column: "Autism is not caused by vaccines. This is just the latest scapegoat. In the 1950s, bad mothers were blamed. Environmental factors may have some effect, but autism is genetic."
Autistic individuals have always existed in human society, but autism as a distinct diagnosis has only existed throughout one lifetime, having been “discovered” in the 1940s independently by American psychiatrist Leo Kanner and German psychiatrist Hans Asperger. As such, there are many misconceptions surrounding the disorder.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (of which Asperger’s syndrome is now rolled into following the publication of the DSM-5) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social communication and a host of other areas of functioning, including the processing of sensory input. Since it’s a spectrum, it doesn’t present the same way in every autistic person.
Autistic people may have difficulty with the back and forth of a conversation. Small talk can be hard for anyone, but for autistic people it can be particularly painful. Autistic people may not pick up on social cues that are obvious to others. They may have difficulty maintaining eye contact or maintaining a tone of voice that is considered correct for the situation. Some autistic people are minimally verbal or completely nonverbal. Fortunately, technology has helped immensely with having their voices heard and their needs met.
Autistic people generally tend to value routine: They may eat the same food every day, take the same route at their favorite place to walk, or have a strict order to their morning/night tasks. Changes to routine may cause anxiety. Strong interests in specific topics are also common. It could be an intense interest in collecting sports cards, or knowing every local tree and plant species, or every fact about their favorite show — literally anything, marked by an intensity of interest others might lack.
Sensory information is processed differently in the autistic brain. Commonplace things such as fluorescent lights are often difficult for the eyes of autistic people. Loud sounds, the taste and texture of certain foods, and certain smells can be anxiety-inducing and can lead to sensory overload. If sensory overload continues for too long, an autistic person can experience a “meltdown” or “shutdown.” A meltdown could look like an emotional outburst or “tantrum” while a shutdown could simply be an autistic person going silent and dissociating from the stressful situation. Both responses, though they might look strange to someone around them, are simply signs that an autistic person has passed their stress-tolerance threshold.
“Stimming” is a way autistic people cope with stress. Stimming is short for self-stimulation, which is the use of repetitive movements that even allistic (non-autistic) people use sometimes, though just not to the same degree. Stimming takes many forms. It can be fidgeting behavior such as finger tapping and leg bouncing. It can also be hand flapping, spinning, skin picking, rocking, bouncing, and hair pulling. Regardless of the movement, the behavior exists because it feels good to the autistic person and regulates their anxiety.
A very common misconception about autism is that it’s an intellectual disability. Although intellectual disabilities may be comorbid with autism (along with other diagnoses like OCD, epilepsy, Tourette’s, and ADHD), autism itself is not an intellectual disability. That said, sensory input can affect an autistic person’s cognitive processing speed, which is not the same as cognitive ability. For example, it may take that person a little longer to react to instructions or an unexpected event, or to get a joke.
Lastly, autism is not caused by vaccines. This is just the latest scapegoat. In the 1950s, bad mothers were blamed. Environmental factors may have some effect, but autism is genetic.
April is Autism Awareness Month. It’s my hope that someday the topic of mental health will no longer be taboo, whether you’re autistic or not.
Erik Bergholm of Duluth is a graduate of the College of St. Scholastica and a member of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, or ASAN (autisticadvocacy.org).