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In this post, let me address a common question among parents – What is autism in simple terms? When I try to explain to them that their child may be suspected of having autistic disorder, they are often confused on what Autism Spectrum Disorder actually is.

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What is Autism in Simple terms

Fig 1: What is Autism in Simple Terms

“We are not specialists in health. We do not understand jargons like neurobehavioral impairments or spectrum disabilities. Can you please explain what is autism in simple terms? All, we want, is a simple explanation of Autism so that we understand what exactly is wrong with my child,” comments Goerge Summers, Father of 3-year-old Sam, diagnosed with ASD
coping with autism

What is Autism in Simple Terms?

Explaining Autism in Simple Terms

In simple terms, autism occurs when a child has trouble communicating and understanding what people think and feel. This makes it very difficult for autistic children to respond to gestures, facial expressions, touch and even language.


classical autism

Fig 2: The spectrum of Autistic Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorder could lead to varying degrees of impairment in the patient – ranging from mild or high functioning autism to the classical or severe autism.

ASD Types By Severity

Visit Our Autism Test Center

Deal With Autism Test Online

What is it like to be Autistic?

In case you are wondering if your child may have autism, the following most common signs of autism could be a good signal. Typically children diagnosed with autism spectrum are:

  • Likely to be oversensitive (even pained) by sight, sounds, and smell and touching which are normal for everyone else (refer to the post on sensory sensitive autism)
  • Likely to exhibit repetitive body movements, like rocking to & fro and making unusual finger movements in front of his/her eyes
  • Likely to display strong attachments to certain objects around them
  • Likely to get confused by changes in daily routines, often resorting to aggressive behavior
  • Likely to observe even small changes in the people or their surroundings

If you observe any of these characteristics of autism in your child’s behavior, please visit our Autism Test Online section for a detailed evaluation of your child

Challenges Parents Face while Understanding Autism

Parents with Autism

Fig 3: Autism parents

The medical definition of autism is quite technical. That is perhaps why parents and family members strive to have a doctor or therapist who could easily explain what is autism in simple terms. Technically, autism is a complex neurobehavioral disorder which includes impairments in social, developmental and communicative skills combined with rigid and/or repetitive behaviors. Autism covers such a large spectrum of skills and impairments, which can sometimes lead to varying degrees of disabilities, thus requiring institutional care.

A Bit of a Background on Autism

Understanding the history of autism may help some parents. The word  ‘autism‘ comes from the Greek word “autos” meaning “self” and has been used for more than 100 years. The term autism, therefore, describes a condition where a person is detached from social interaction, and hence, an isolated self.

Fig 4: Eugen Bleuler

Fig 4: Eugen Bleuler

A Swiss psychiatrist, Eugene Bleuler, began using the term autism around 1911 to refer to the group of symptoms for schizophrenia. Until the 1940’s, research on autism and schizophrenia was done together as one subject. In the 1960’s, the medical professionals began to formulate separate understandings of autism in children. The role of behavioral therapy and the use of controlled learning environments came to light in the 1990’s. The previous method of electroshock therapy used in the 1960-70’s was put to rest. Today the cornerstone for research and therapy is focused on behavior, and language therapies.

The Role of Heredity in Autism

Whether Autism is Genetic or not has been a common concern among parents. Often would-be parents with a previous history of Autism in their family ask me the question: Am I Autistic? Is what a couple of wanna-be parents has to say:
Amanda says, “Here is I am about to start a family and have already started the research journey preparing myself for parenthood. Along with this journey, it has occurred to me whether I might have Autism? The thought never occurred to me before But since my sister has Rett’s syndrome, I am beginning to feel a bit edgy, what if ASD is genetic?”
Jason says, “Now that I want to bring a happy healthy child into the world, but I do have a question that keeps popping up, What is the probability that I might have Asperger’s since I have challenges socializing? I have graduated college, have married, got a decent job and income but now in preparation for parenthood there is that little lingering question.”

National Autism Society (NAS) – Key Autism Traits Checklist in Adults” description

  • Do you struggle in social situations?
  • Do you dislike or are uncomfortable with change?
  • Are you accused of staring blankly at something?
  • Do you not understand facial gestures of people around you?
  • Do people tell you that you speak too soft or too loud?
  • Do you always feel “wired”; have to be on the go?
  • Are you dyslexic or have epilepsy?
  • Is it hard for you to read people’s thoughts through their actions?
  • Do you find it easy to live by rules and follow routines?
  • Do you have a hard time filtering out background noise, lighting or smells?

Aspergers Quiz for Adults

Autism Test for Adults - Checklist based

There are many tests that can be administered by a psychologist, psychiatrist or neurologist. In most cases, you will need a referral from your general physician. Go through the checklist and the autism evaluation tests, present the finding to your general physician who will then, if required, refer you to one of the specialists for further testing and assessment.

Autism – Borderline or High Functioning Types

Usually, a lesser form of the autism syndrome is called borderline Autism. A child diagnosed with borderline or mild autism displays many of the symptoms, though not at a similar frequency or severity. Borderline Autism symptoms include the inability to adapt or make transitions easily, mild lack of social as well as language skills, developmental and sensory issues. They may have a hard time showing empathy for another person or know how to regulate their own emotions. Just as any diagnosis on the autism spectrum; tests, screening, and observation will need to be conducted.

The Thing about Echolalia

What is echolalia autism in simple terms

Fig 5: Echolalia Autism

Echolalia is another form of borderline autism. What is Echolalia Autism? It is another form of Autism which is very similar in nature to borderline autism but with one differentiating factor – Speech. Echolalia Autism is a rhythmic way of mimicking the cadence and tones of our language. Children with Echolalia Autism often mimic and repeat phrases to entire sentences. This is called “gestalt” which means whole. Learning a language the gestalt way would be like learning a language in chunks, just like a parrot. For example, such children know who mommy is by the repetition of the word mommy whenever she is involved in anything. Echolalia Autism is often observed when the toddler is about two and a half years old.

Many children with this form of autism can echo or mimic what is being said by associating a predefined sequence of words to repetitive actions. Some even lead to use the same voice inflections as the person that spoke the word or phrase. If a child stays with this echolalia type of speech it could indicate that the growth in communication skills of an autistic child may have stagnated at a particular level. Reassessment and a new therapy plan would be needed at this time to move the child along to future levels.

Autism – Where is it Heading

Where is autism heading?

To conclude, over time, the definition of autism has changed from being one disorder to a spectrum of tens (or maybe dozens) of disorders with overlapping symptoms. With intensive research and serious funds being propelled into Autism development, a lot has been achieved in the recent past and the future looks really bright for autism treatment.

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