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Making the transition
When Difference Hurts
Explaining Autism to Teens
Krista's younger brother seemed really quiet when Iris met him for the
first time. "Yeah, he has autism," Krista said while they sorted
through her CDs. Then she started talking about a new band, so Iris
didn't have a chance to ask her any questions. It left her wondering:
What is autism? How does someone get it? Can it be treated?
What Is Autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder that some people are born with
- it's not something you can catch or pass along to someone else. It
affects the brain and makes communicating and interacting with other
people difficult. People who have autism often have delayed language
development, prefer to spend time alone, and show less interest in
making friends. Another characteristic of autism is what some people
describe as "sensory overload": Sounds seem louder, lights brighter,
or smells stronger. Although many people with autism also have mental
retardation, some are of average or high intelligence.
Not everybody with autism has the exact same symptoms. Some people may
have autism that is mild, whereas others may have autism that is more
severe. Because it affects people differently, autism is known as a
spectrum disorder. Two people with the same spectrum disorder may not
act alike or have the same skills.
As many as one in 500 people have autism, and it's four times more
common in guys than in girls. Although doctors do not know exactly
what causes it, researchers believe autism is linked to differences in
brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). These differences may be caused
by something in our genes - families who have one child with autism
have a higher risk of having another child with autism or a similar
disorder. Research suggests that it's probably a combination of genes
that causes the disorder, not a single autism gene.
Sometimes you may hear other developmental disorders mentioned in the
same way as autism, such as Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, and
childhood disintegrative disorder. These disorders, along with autism,
are all considered pervasive developmental disorders. People diagnosed
with any of these disabilities have problems with social skills and
What Do Doctors Do?
Autism is usually diagnosed at a very young age, when a child is 1
1/2 to 4 years old. There are no medical tests to determine whether
someone has autism, although doctors may run various tests to rule out
other causes of the kid's symptoms. The best way to identify autism is
to watch how a child behaves and communicates. Parents can help by
telling the doctor how the child acts at home. Then a team of
specialists - which may include a psychologist, a neurologist, a
psychiatrist, a speech therapist, and a developmental pediatrician -
will evaluate the child and compare levels of development and behavior
to those of other children the same age. Together, they will decide
whether the child has autism or something else.
How Is Autism Treated?
Autism is not treated with surgery or medicine (although some
people with autism may take medicine to improve certain symptoms, like
aggressive behavior or attention problems). Instead, people who have
autism are taught skills that will help them do the things that are
difficult for them. The best results are usually seen with children
who begin treatment when they are very young, as soon as they are
Special education programs that are tailored to the child's individual
needs are usually the most effective form of treatment. These programs
work on breaking down barriers by teaching the child to communicate
(sometimes by pointing or using pictures or sign language) and to
interact with others. Basic living skills, like how to cross a street
safely or ask for directions, are also emphasized. A treatment program
might also include any of the following: speech therapy, physical
therapy, music therapy, changes in diet, medication, occupational
therapy, and hearing or vision therapy. The same specialists who
helped diagnose the condition usually work together to come up with
the best combination of therapies to use in addition to the
By the time they are teens, people with autism may be taking regular
classes, attending special classes at the high school level, or
attending a special school because of ongoing behavioral problems.
What Are Teens With Autism Like?
Because their brains process information differently, teens with
autism may not act like other people you know (or each other, because
the severity of symptoms of autism varies from person to person). They
can have trouble talking and sometimes communicate with gestures
instead of words. Some spend a lot of time alone, don't make friends
easily (and may not act like they want to), and don't react to social
cues like someone smiling or scowling at them. They often do not make
eye contact when you are talking to them. They also find it hard to
join in a game or activity with other people. If they are sensitive to
sensory stimuli, they might draw back when hugged or startle easily
when they hear a sudden noise, even if it's not very loud.
Some teens with autism are passive and withdrawn, whereas others are
overactive and may have tantrums or act aggressively when they are
frustrated; it's important to realize that this is part of the
disorder. Many teens with autism also continue to have intellectual
limitations and learning problems. Because they don't have the ability
to express emotions like anger and frustration in more acceptable
ways, teens with autism may express themselves in ways that seem
inappropriate. Many have difficulty coping with change and get anxious
if their daily routine is altered. In more severe cases, a teen might
fixate on different objects or ideas or display repetitive motions
like rocking or hand flapping.
One common misconception is that autistic people don't feel or show
emotion. Although they can feel affection, they often don't express it
the same way others do. To an outsider, this can come across as being
cold or unemotional.
Living With Autism
Perhaps the most difficult part of coping with autism is
interacting with other people every day. Because the brain of a teen
with autism works a little differently, learning to communicate can be
like learning a foreign language. This can make it hard for people
with autism to express themselves or for other people to understand
them, so just talking with a classmate becomes stressful and
When even a casual conversation requires so much effort, it's
obviously hard to make friends. Teens with autism may have to think
constantly about how other people will perceive their actions and make
a conscious effort to pay attention to social cues the rest of us
handle without even thinking. Basically, it takes a lot of work for a
person with autism to do what comes naturally to most people.
So if you know someone who has autism, be extra patient when you're
talking with him or her. Don't expect a person with autism to look at
things the same way you do. You should also realize that some
behaviors you think are rude (like interrupting you when you're
talking) come from the autistic teen's different perception of the
world: It's tough for people who can't read social cues and recognize
the natural pauses in a conversation to know when to jump in with
their own thoughts. The more understanding and supportive you are, the
more enjoyable your time together will be.
Despite all the day-to-day hurdles, though, many people with autism
lead fulfilling, happy lives on their own or with help from friends
and family. Most teens with autism like school, and some can attend
regular classes with everyone else. They have individual tastes and
enjoy different activities, just like you do. Some people with autism
go on to vocational school or college, get married, and have
successful careers. Consider Temple Grandin, for example. Despite
having autism, she was able to earn a PhD and become a college
professor. She's even written a book about her experience called
Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism.
Although she still struggles with the disorder almost daily, she leads
a "normal" life, just like many other people with autism.