SOCIOLOGY OF AUTISM
SOCIAL & EMPATHY SKILLS
TRANSITIONING THROUGH DEVELOPMENTAL PHASES
The relationship between language and identity is an intriguing one, partly because debates of language are as inclusive and undetermined as debates on the theories of identity. (Norton, 1997) This debate is further compounded when a person has a neurological condition such as autism. This is a condition whereby an individual has abnormal interpersonal relationships which are related to their emotional facial expressions, gestures and vocalization and cannot seem to recognize the social and body language gestures and signals sent out by other people. They fail to participate in the normal interactions that shape identity. This has a major impact upon the individuals and their families
In 2012 research undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in America announced that autism affects 1 in 68 individuals under the age of 21. As Gecas and Burke (1995) state that although some of our self-views are gained by direct experiences with our environment, most of what we know about ourselves is derived from others. Once these direct experiences would have been face-to-fact however the advent of technology at an affordable price in recent years now means that many autistic people have found a voice and a platform online. The berth of their experiences has expanded as barriers have been broken down and the core domains that determine quality of life through childhood to adulthood have helped transform societal attitudes about autism.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects, among other things, the way an individual relates to his or her environment and their interaction with other people. (Autism Spectrum Australia, n.d.) People with autistic disorder show several kinds of impairment; social interaction, communication and behavior. These impairments have distinct clinical features defined by Autism Spectrum Australia as:
- Marked lack of awareness of others
- Lack of social or emotional reciprocity
- Rarely seeks comfort or affection in times of distress
- Failure to develop peer relationships
- Absent or impaired imitation (lack of responsiveness to modeling).
- Delay in or total absence of spoken language with markedly abnormal nonverbal communication (e.g., in eye-to-eye gaze)
- Failure to use social or emotional cues to regulate communication
- Speech abnormalities (pitch, intonation, rate, rhythm, stress)
- Stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language (e.g. repeats words or phrases whether or not they have communicative value).
- Insistence on sameness (e.g., distress over small changes)
- Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
- Stereotyped body movements
- Markedly restricted range of interests
- Absent or markedly impaired imaginative play
While clinical features are needed to help identity which disorder a person has these features portray a person as ill, broken and in need of fixing ( AASPIRE, n.d.) claim that there are very few models of autism that are presented in the form of human diversity akin to other societal form of diversity (e.g. ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc.). Through a neurodiverse perspective autistic individuals are seen as having a blend of cognitive strengths and weaknesses in the following domains:
- Language, Communication and Social Interactions
- Sensory Processing (environmental input)
- Motor Skill Executions (environmental output)
- Goal-oriented and Reflexive Thinking, Planning and Self-Regulation.
This model, according to AASPIRE (n.d.), recognizes that the difficulties experienced by autistic people are always contextual. It contends that living in a society designed for non-autistic people contributes to and exacerbates many of the daily living challenges that autistic people experience. Sensory demands, social ambiguities and information complexities are among the barriers that modern living presents to autistic people.
SOCIOLOGY OF AUTISM
The Autism Help Organsiation states that due to the complex nature of autism, there are many facets of sociology that need to be considered when discussing it, such as the culture, which has evolved from autistic persons connecting and communicating with one another. In addition, there are several subgroups forming within the autistic community, such as the person-first vs. identity-first debate, which are sometimes in strong opposition to one another.
Recognising that there has been an increase in diagnosing autism has led to new approaches to educating and socializing autistics. As a result an autistic culture has begun to develop. It is similar to deaf culture in so much as that autistic culture is based on a more accepting belief that autism is a unique way of being and not a disorder to be cured. Consequently many more autistic individuals who have trouble with speech nowadays participate in more community-based activities online, finding linguistic expression through blogging and poetry and by exhibiting their artwork in community shows.
According to a fact sheet provided by the Autism Help Organization (n.d.) many in the autistic community including some persons who are considered to be severely autistic or low functioning, feel that to use person first language conveys the impression that autism is a disease, something that can and should be cured. These autistics feel that autism in an integral part of their identity, that the person and the autism cannot be separated such as someone might identify themselves as African-American, Muslim or left-handed. Meanwhile many parents of autistic children disagree with the position of the autistic self-advocates as it is their belief that autism is not part of the person and that it should be removed or cured.
One online blogger who goes by the plume de nom of Autistic Hoya wrote in 2011, “ That’s why, when I read a few articles scoffing entirely at the debate, and dismissing it as ultimately irrelevant (insisting that each person should use the terminology he or she prefers and to ignore what other people say or write), I was concerned. The question of person- first language is definitely important and cannot be disregarded. The way we use language affects those around us- in our immediate communities and society at large. Trends of language have the power to transform ideas and attitudes. To dismiss this as “a silly semantics argument” denies the power of language.”
The most universal symptom of autism is that of ‘language disturbance’. More than half of all autistic individuals do not speak and for those who do speak most reverse “I” and “You” when communicating with others. For example when asking for a drink they might say, “You want a drink,” rather than, “I want a drink”. Another characteristic is that of ‘echolalia’ where the individual echoes or repeats all or part of what has been said to them. The mannerism of speech and the language used by autistic people seem to be mechanical and monotonous. (Roberstson, 2010).
Language is not spontaneously acquired in autism. Traditional methods for teaching language are not adequate or useful, as they take for granted children’s ability to spontaneously make associations between sounds and concepts and to learn how to form sentences. Robertson (2010) suggests that children with autism must learn language as an effortful intellectual exercise. Verbal and nonverbal aspects of language all have to be taught deliberately and systematically. Nouns must be taught by direct reference to the things they signify. All children require this sort of association in order how to read, but autistic children require it in order how to speak. Other parts of speech such as prepositions and pronouns have to be introduced purposefully and as visually as possible. The entire process of language acquisition becomes a huge undertaking.
Nonverbal forms of language are also negatively affected by autism. Children with autism have great difficulty understanding nonverbal forms of communication. They don’t recognize the inherent meaning in other people’s facial expressions and they don’t use facial expression to convey meaning. They do not instinctively know that a frown represents displeasure or that a smile communicates pleasure. Any recognition of the meaning of nonverbal expressions must be explicitly taught.