What is Autism?
Mental health is a prevalent topic in current popular discourse. With awareness campaigns- like the digital campaign called We See Things Differently, and the Light It Up Blue campaign in Dubai- and organizations built around the idea of inclusivity- like Autism Speaks and Small Steps Big Dreams, mental health problems are seen less as hindrances and more as challenges.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is one such challenge. With the previously prevailing negative stereotypes keeping the general public from an unbiased knowledge of autism, some stereotypes have lingered on in the collective unconscious of many. What autism is, & how it manifests in children and adults is yet to be common knowledge around the globe.
Moreover, the assumptions propagated by pop culture representations & social media hashtags, while good natured attempts for inclusion, delude many a viewer into believing they have complete knowledge on the subject.
So, really getting into it, what do we need to know about Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a range of neurodevelopmental conditions, impeding normative social behaviors. According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, autism can be recognized by the inability to conform to common social communication techniques- ranging from lack of verbal communication to being unable to understand and process relationships, “excessively repetitive” tendencies, “restricted interests” and fixations on “sameness.” However, it is significant to note that there are varying degrees of the effects of the condition on different individuals.
The first diagnosis of autism dates back to the middle of the 20th century, when Donald Grey Triplett was diagnosed with Case 1 autism. Growing up, Donald’s parents could tell he was not like any other child. With a remarkable memory, a desire for isolation from other children and mimicking words without a sense of meaning, he clearly displayed a different bearing. Though, it was for his problematic appetite and his fear of self-propelling vehicles that Donald seemed to gradually develop temper tantrums, which his parents were not able to understand or control.
Consequently, at the age of three, he had to be dropped off at an institution as per the norm of the time. However, unsatisfied with this decision, parents Mary and Beamon took him home and off to visit another doctor in 1938.
This doctor was Leo Kanner in Baltimore, who would be the first to diagnose a case of autism spectrum disorder. Realizing that Donald could not be diagnosed in accordance with pre-existing medical knowledge, Kanner chose to study a group of eleven of his child patients with overlapping signs of the same condition. This resulted in the publishing of his book defining this new diagnosis and its relevant terms.
The Camali Clinic in Dubai highlights additional characteristics associated with autism spectrum disorder, including cognitive, emotional and learning difficulties. It states, thus, that those on the spectrum can face challenges in understanding others’ feelings and intentions.
Studies by the CDC show that boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls, and that it occurs globally, irrespective of different racial or ethnic communities. The CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network states the prevalence of autism is approximately 1.85%- with 1 in 54 cases diagnosed as autism.
Types of Autistic Spectrum Disorder
While autism is used as a generalized term, it is a little-known fact that there are further subcategories of the disorder. This signifies how mild or severe the condition is for the individual.
- Autistic Disorder, alternatively termed classical ASD, is the most severe form of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
- Asperger Syndrome, or Asperger’s, which is a milder form of Autistic Disorder.
- Childhood disintegrative disorder, a condition marking its presence during toddlerhood.
- Pervasive developmental disorder, typically called PDD-NOS.
In Present Discourse
Social media has become a popular platform for spreading awareness in the present day and age. However, with it being another form of media, it can be subject to biased portrayals and sensationalized representations. With a number of hashtags supporting Autism Awareness Month, and social media accounts dedicated to providing relevant information to help parents and acquaintances better comprehend, there are also pages that promote stereotypes as fact instead of proven data. To understand autism, one needs to acknowledge what it should not be compartmentalized as.
An article in the Hollywood Reporter criticizes television shows like The Good Doctor, highlighting how Hollywood representations are mere stock images of genius white men. Perhaps in lieu of the “disabled, differently abled” narrative, movies and television depictions seem to glamorize disorders as some sort of power-up; a substitute to replace that which they lack. Playing on the term “model minority” (introduced by sociologist William Peterson), the article mentions a “model neurominority” prevalent in pop culture representation.
To elucidate, the term is used to reflect on how some on the spectrum are elevated and glorified, while others are not. As such, a select few features relevant to the spectrum are picked up and molded into a sort of “superhero”.
It implies that such representations undermine the struggles associated with autism, glamorizing it as a hero’s backstory rather than a disorder demanding serious attention and not popularized notoriety. It makes light of a difficult situation, and those who do not conform to this version of autism are ridiculed and misunderstood.
Stigma surrounding the disorder continues to this day, despite these feel-good TV series, showing how such representation is not helping spread awareness of the disorder.
To fight the stigma, organizations like Small Steps Big Dreams and Autism Village aim to embody positive understanding towards those on the spectrum. Especially with the former having both an online platform and a physical presence, Small Steps Big Dreams is a significant stride for autism awareness and inclusion in Dubai, where cases of social discomfort are quite often associated with mental health ailments.
Where Autism Village is designed to offer support as a mobile application, Small Steps Big Dreams allows acceptance of the condition and deals with the varying requirements of each individual child. According to Educating Children with Autism, education can at present be deemed as a primary form of treatment for autism spectrum disorder. Therefore, such organizations that aim to educate and integrate into society those on the spectrum are a major requirement, lest we cast away a chunk of humankind aside.
“20 Inspiring Special Needs Organizations Worth Knowing About.” Digital Scribbler. https://digitalscribbler.com/blog/special-needs-organizations
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, ed. 5.
“Autism Awareness Day in Dubai.” Bayut. https://www.bayut.com/mybayut/autism-awareness-day-dubai/
“Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).” Camali Clinic. https://camaliclinic.com/cases_we_see/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/
“Autism spectrum disorder – childhood disintegrative disorder.” Mediline Plus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001535.htm#:~:text=Childhood%20disintegrative%20disorder%20is%20a,skills%20that%20they%20already%20learned.
Bell, Jennifer. “In the Middle East, stigma surrounding autism persists.” Arab News, 1 Apr 2019. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1476196/middle-east
“Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
“Donald Grey Triplett: The first boy diagnosed as autistic.” BBC News, 21 Jan 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35350880
Duan, Christy, et al. “Why ‘The Good Doctor’ Is Bad Medicine for Autism (Guest Column).” Hollywood Reporter, 2018. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/why-good-doctor-is-bad-medicine-autism-1098809
Educating Children with Autism, Edited by Catherine Lord and James P. McGee, 11 Oct 2001.
Small Steps Big Dreams. https://smallstepsbd.ae/