What is autism? We often hear two types of answers to this question—and these answers generally correspond to two small variations in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). These variations, however, do not define the majority of those with an ASD.
First is the idea that the person is isolated by their disorder, not interested in relating with others, possibly aggressive and has an intellectual disability.
Second is the idea that the person has great talent in a particular area that requires a high level of intellect, but that the person has severe limitations when it comes to social situations.
In 2017, the World Health Organisation cited that 1 in 160 children had an autism spectrum disorder, making it a relatively frequent occurrence. Despite this, people know relatively little about it.
To inform and bring awareness to society about this and other disorders, works of fiction often lend a hand. They provide the means through which to understand another person’s reality from the comfort of one’s own home.
However, to capture the audience’s attention, the most interesting information on the disorder is often highlighted. This tends to lead to confusion about common features and symptoms experienced by those with a disorder of this type as only a very small cohort are affected by such characteristics. The end result is that the characteristics described are not specific to the disorder, but are rather the simple result of a work of fiction.
Savant syndrome often goes along with an ASD (though it is a rare syndrome in general). It is characterised by difficulty with social relationships and a high memory capacity that is often linked to a specific skill that is carried out at a very high level. It is estimated that only one in every ten people with an ASD have this syndrome and it is represented in films like Rain Man and The Good Doctor.
Television and cinema also represent general ASD symptoms through comedy (like in The Big Bang Theory) or drama (like in My Name is Khan). Other times it is presented more concretely, showing common symptoms and the daily life a person with an ASD as is the case in Atypical.
All of these works offer a better understanding of the characteristics of autism spectrum disorders. It is important, though, to remember that they are fictional works making it likely that some characteristics are not represented exactly how they would exist in real life.
As indicted by the word “spectrum”, there is as much variation amongst those who have an ASD as there is amongst those who do not.
Therefore, although the characteristics of the disorder include difficulties interacting with others and a limited repertoire of interests and behaviours, this can vary greatly from one person to the next:
There is a range of severity when it comes to having difficulty interacting with others. It can go from having limited interest in personal relationships to a different way of interacting and trouble understanding other people’s reactions.
Such difficulties with interacting are accompanied by problems with communication skills that range from not being able to employ any type of language to having fluid linguistic abilities but difficulty using them.
Additionally, the ability to imagine and understand the emotions and intentions of others is often affected. This implies greater difficulty taking part in social interactions.
A limited repertoire of interests and behaviours means that they often carry out certain behaviours repetitively and have trouble changing activities and location. This can exist to a greater or lesser extent depending on the person.
There is great variation when it comes to intellectual abilities. There are those who show clear signs of an intellectual disability and those who have average or above average intellectual ability.