What is Autism?

What is Autism… in plain language?

Though current research has opened our understanding of Autism, there still seems to be a lot of mystery about the condition.

You might ask this question to 10 people, and you will likely find you get 10 different answers. Though current research has opened our understanding of Autism, there still seems to be a lot of mystery about the condition.

As a novice Speech Pathology clinician, I also would not have been able to answer this question with much confidence. I have since developed my understanding, and I’m going to have a go at explaining it to you here.

In biological terms, Autism is a neurological condition. Researchers such as Nancy Minshew have been instrumental in developing the ‘Underconnectivity Hypothesis’ which is supported by a large body of biological evidence. What we know from their work is that in Autism, certain parts of the brain are less connected than what we see in neuro-typical brains, while other parts are more connected.

This is great, but it might not mean much to many parents of children with Autism, who are trying to connect with their child with Autism.

The best explanation of what Autism is that I have found (just my opinion), is by Dr Gutstein, Psychologist and co-founder of RDI® Connect. Dr Gutstein explains Autism as a product of a child’s lack of benefit from the natural guiding relationship with their parents/primary caregiver. In typical development, a child uses thousands of back-and-forth interactions with their parents to learn something called ‘dynamic thinking’ – which is the processes we use to cope with an uncertain and ever changing world; things like seeing problems, looking back to our past to find a best-fit solution, thinking ahead to decide if this solution will work, taking the perspectives of others around us, appraising what is “good enough”, and more of these types of ‘grey area’ thinking processes.

While Autism is different for each person, one thing that is common across the spectrum is this difficulty with dynamic thinking. It is dynamic thinking that allows children to grow into competent adults who can exercise their own agency, reflect on their experiences, connect with others, and lead happy and fulfilling lives. To me, this explanation of what Autism is makes sense in a way I can relate to on a personal level. It also makes sense that in order to help overcome some the limitations of Autism, we could help to develop dynamic thinking.