What is Autism?
Autism is a complex brain-based disability.
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. It’s said that no two people with
autism are the same. Consequently, autism is
referred to as a “spectrum” disorder. There are
three processes 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, the child begins to see the different
characteristics of each animal and learns their
names. Central Coherence skills are also
important when we set goals. The goal may
be large, but we are able to break it down into
The next brain-based skill is Executive
Functioning. This is our ability to organize,
concentrate and complete tasks, recognize
mistakes and fix them. It also supports time
management, problem solving and emotional
regulation. Executive Functioning is always
on keeping us aware of the things going on
around, like a door opening, whispering in the
back of the room and alerting us to danger.
We all fall somewhere along the continuum of
poor to excellent executive functioning skills.
How often do you lose your keys?
The last brain-based skill that is different
in individuals with ASD is a neurological
process called Theory of Mind. This is our
ability to understand that you have different
by Rosie Portera, MS, CCC-SLP
thoughts and feelings than others AND
that you can influence other’s thought and
feelings by changing your behavior. This is
an extremely complex brain function that
relies heavily on non-verbal 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 which
effects 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 that that affects 1 in every 59 people
in the United States.
Identifying Autism Early can dramatically
change the trajectory of the disorder. It’s
devastating to hear that your child isn’t
developing as expected. Well-meaning family,
friends and even your pediatrician will say
things like, “She’s not even two yet, she’ll
catch up”, and, “He’s not talking because
you baby him too much” or “Let’s just wait
and see where he is developmentally in six
months.” Many parents or caregivers share
that they knew something wasn’t right, but
hesitate to get their child screened because
they want to believe what they are told by the
people they trust. What are the early signs
for Autism Spectrum Disorder? The newest
research is helping us identify children at risk
for ASD as early as 18 months of age. The
signs can be very subtle at first, but because of
the brain-based perceptual deficits associated
with autism, as the child gets older, their
learning gaps may increase and challenging
behaviors begin to get in the way of routine
family activities and the ability to absorb new