Austim awareness month: What is autism?

April marks the beginning of Autism Awareness Month. So let’s start the awareness! Autism is a complex brain-based disability. Because of this it can be very hard for those of us without autism to understand why people with autism do what they do. We are all born with the ability to easily learn basic skills that help us survive and learn. These are skills like walking and talking, but also include our ability to be curious and open to learning new things. It’s said that no two people with autism act the same or have the same issues. That is why autism is referred to as a “spectrum” disorder. There are three mechanisms in the brain that are affected in a person with autism. Each of these areas can impact learning by different degrees.

The first is called Central Coherence Theory. This is our ability to learn new things by building on the things we already know. We do this by categorizing and associating new information to help us more easily learn new things. We see it in toddlers when they first identify a dog. A dog is a dog, but they may also call a cow a dog and a horse a dog. They have generalized the four legs of a dog to all animals that have four legs. After some correction, they begin to see the differences in the characteristics of each animal and learn their proper names. We also call upon our Central Coherence skills when we set a goal. The goal may be large, but our ability to break it down into manageable steps makes it achievable. Knowing that, you can see why individuals with learning disabilities have deficits which impact their central coherence.

The next brain-based skill is Executive Functioning. This ability is often referred to as the “air traffic controller of our brain.” This is our ability to organize, concentrate and complete tasks, recognize errors and fix them. It also supports time management, problem solving and the regulation of emotions. Our executive functioning ability is always on. It’s keeping us aware of all the things going on around us and can range from hearing the door open, to being annoyed by the people whispering in the back of the room, to alerting us to danger. We all fall somewhere along the continuum of poor to excellent executive functioning skills. How often do you or someone you know lose their wallet or can’t find their keys?

The last brain-based skill that is different in individuals with autism spectrum disorder is a neurological process called Theory of Mind. This is our ability to understand that you have different thoughts than I do, and know that if I change my behavior, I can change or influence your thoughts and behaviors. This is an extremely complex brain function that relies a lot on nonverbal communication, situational cues and the ability to take another person’s perspective. Theory of Mind skills are necessary for us to understand literature, get along with others, make friends and maintain relationships. It’s generally the aspect of autism that presents the most challenges.

So, what is autism? Autism is a pervasive neuro-developmental condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. People with autism may have significant challenges academically, functionally and socially. Autism is a spectrum condition and looks different and to varying degrees in every individual. It affects 1 in every 68 people in the United States. There are many evidence-based interventions that can support an individual with autism to be successful in all aspects of their life.

Rosie Portera is the clinical specialist who serves Okeechobee County for Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities. FAU CARD is a community-based program providing assistance and support to people with autism spectrum disorder and related disabilities, their families, the professionals serving them and the community. All services are free. For more information, contact: Rosie Portera at: or 772-873-3422.

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