What having autism really means; comparing perceptions

Feb 27, 2016

The human brain is divided into four lobes that control our five senses and our personality. But what if these lobes were all on a different page and failed to work together? Much like a team of elite football players who all think their own strategy to win the game is best, but lose in the end because no one understood what the other was trying to do. 

Autism works much in this way and can make it difficult for people with the disorder to perform certain tasks. But having the disorder does not mean a person is incapable of anything someone without it can do. This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Barry Prizant, a clinical scholar, consultant, and researcher in the field of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and the author of “Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism,” explains what it means to have autism, and why the common view of its barriers may need to be shattered.

Prizant says because autism affects all parts of the brain, people with the disorder can have a wide range of symptoms, and it’s often defined by a list of things a person with the disorder can’t do.

“For so many years that is how autism was approached in terms of diagnosis, and still is, and also in terms of education and treatment.” Prizant said.

However, there is no one symptom that defines autism, just in the way there is no one symptom that defines being human; we are all unique. Much of what is seen as symptoms may just simply be coping strategies used when the world feels overwhelming and confusing, says Prizant. Just in the way a person without the disorder may come off as cranky when they’re stressed, an autistic person may come off as rude or uncommunicative when they don’t understand what their brain perceives.

Credit Natasha Hanova / Flickr

There are also behaviors Prizant says people both with and without autism perform, but for people with autism it’s often seen as a symptom. Talking to yourself in private or in your head is an example of this, something you might do on a daily basis. People with autism also do this but often have trouble keeping their thoughts private and will publicly say them, but Prizant says this doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate use of those thoughts.

“There’s no such thing as autistic behaviors, these are all human behaviors,” Prizant said. “There are behaviors that may be of concern at times, but still, we see that in individuals who don’t have autism.”

By making people see this, Prizant hopes it will take away the fear people place in autism—whether it’s a parent who has a child with autism, someone dealing with the disorder themselves, or someone who is in frequent contact with an autistic person.

“There’s this public perception of autism as this absolutely horrific thing,” Prizant said. “Autism can present significant challenges for an individual and a family, but another thing I try to do in my book is tell stories of families who I’ve known for close to 30 years who have adult children with autism who are doing just fine.”

Through his research and his writing, Prizant’s main goal is to create more opportunities for people with autism at home, at school, and in the workforce.