Autism is a lifetime disability that is marked most typically by reduced communication skills and repetitive movements. While it is often associated with those who are extremely intelligent as seen in shows like “Rainman” and “Touch”, this is actually a myth. While the individuals involved in those shows are in all honesty on the Autism spectrum they are by no means typical examples of those who are found there.
Many individuals on the spectrum are fairly normal in intelligence while others actually are fairly heavily intellectually impaired. Often those individuals that are shown as autistic or used as examples of autism are at the high end of the intelligence scale.
The definition below is from the American Psychiatric Association, for a lay person it is extremely complex and perhaps the best explanation would be that autism is often seen as a communications disorder, where the individual has extreme difficulty on a social basis, they are often non verbal or have minimal speech however this is not always the case. Autistics also tend to extremely repetitive behaviours.
In many cases the frustration over lack of ability to communicate felt by an autistic individuals is shown by aggressive behaviour and is often the only way that an autistic has available to get the message out to those around him, that they find the situation they are in incredibly uncomfortable.
While in some extremely rare cases drugs can be used to help an autistic individual control their behaviours long enough to allow therapies to do their work, often drugs increase the autistic individuals disconnection from the normal world and their peers. For this reason drugs should only be used as a last resort after extensive therapy has been used unsuccessfully.
Autism Spectrum Disorder as per the DSM5 from the American Psychiatric Association
Must meet criteria A, B, C, and D:
A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across contexts, not accounted for by general developmental delays, and manifest by all 3 of the following:
1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity; ranging from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back and forth conversation through reduced sharing of interests, emotions, and affect and response to total lack of initiation of social interaction,
2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction; ranging from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication, through abnormalities in eye contact and body-language, or deficits in understanding and use of nonverbal communication, to total lack of facial expression or gestures.
3. Deficits in developing and maintaining relationships, appropriate to developmental level (beyond those with caregivers); ranging from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit different social contexts through difficulties in sharing imaginative play and in making friends to an apparent absence of interest in people
B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities as manifested by at least two of the following:
1. Stereotyped or repetitive speech, motor movements, or use of objects; (such as simple motor stereotypies, echolalia, repetitive use of objects, or idiosyncratic phrases).
2. Excessive adherence to routines, ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior, or excessive resistance to change; (such as motoric rituals, insistence on same route or food, repetitive questioning or extreme distress at small changes).
3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus; (such as strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
4. Hyper-or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of environment; (such as apparent indifference to pain/heat/cold, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, fascination with lights or spinning objects).
C. Symptoms must be present in early childhood (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities)
D. Symptoms together limit and impair everyday functioning.