What do you imagine when you hear the word autism? Does Dustin Hoffman from Rain Man appear in your mind? Do you think of a child huddled in a corner rocking back and forth? Do you picture a person locked in their own world? If so, you aren’t alone, but you might be surprised to know that those images are only a very small part of autism. Let’s take a quick overview of this spectrum disorder and expand those pictures.

What is autism?

Autism is a neurological disorder, which affects three main developmental areas: social interaction, communication and imaginative play. It is called a spectrum disorder, which means that the effects from it can range along a spectrum, from severely affected to a very highly functioning person who might only be described as quirky. No two people with autism are the same, so remember to never generalize, such as People with autism don’t speak or like to be around people, because that simply isn’t true in many cases. Some of the friendliest, most personable and charming kids you’d ever want to meet are on the spectrum. They are all different with a few common traits, that is the key.

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s Syndrome, or AS, has been debated. Some say it is a form of high-functioning autism; other say it is an entirely separate diagnosis and should be described as such. Most agree that it falls somewhere on the spectrum. People who experience AS may be extremely successful in the workplace, considered simply quirky, even undiagnosed. There are many famous members of society today who are either outspoken about their AS, or are widely speculated to have AS.

What is it like to have autism?

Speaking to a child or adult with autism or AS is an eye opening experience. Again, as no two people are alike, you’ll garner different information from each one. Some describe it as loud, distracting, and lonely at times; many kids know they are different and can’t understand why. Social interactions can be very difficult and emotionally painful, as one trait found in people with autism is difficulty in understanding social cues. They may not instinctively know to ask another child to play, or how to play appropriately with others. Sometimes they will monopolize the conversation, or simply not understand the rules because they aren’t logical or concrete rules and don’t make sense to them.

Picture this: you speak perfect English and communicate well. But you need to go to France on business and you don’t speak a word of French. You walk into a bistro and try to order a cup of coffee but the waiter doesn’t understand you. Now, you know you are speaking perfectly fine and can’t figure out why he doesn’t understand you. Over and over, you try to get your point across and he is just not getting it. Would that frustrate you? Probably. Would you react in a way he would think is inappropriate? Perhaps. But all you were trying to do was communicate with him, right? This same scenario may occur daily for many people with autism. What a neurotypical person might describe as inappropriate behavior should instead be viewed as a form of communication.

Sensory issues can be a nightmare for a person with autism. Imagine how annoying it is to have a scratchy tag in your shirt. Now imagine that those tags are all over your body, as your jeans rub against your skin, the tag scratches your neck, your socks have a wrinkle that won’t straighten itself and your shoes feel too tight. Add in the lighting being way too bright, the florescent fixture is humming, someone is breathing into your ear, the teacher is droning on too loudly and your chair is uncomfortable. All of these things, and countless others, may affect a person with autism. How well do you think you would be able to work with all of these distractions?

How should I act around a person with autism?

First remember that this is not an autistic person. This is a person with autism. Which comes first? The person. Do not speak to the people around him as though he wasn’t there. Do not ask his mother if he can talk. Never assume he doesn’t understand. Non-verbal people can often clearly understand you, even if the process is different. Do say hello. Do keep a respectful physical boundary. Do not speak loudly, as though he was hearing-impaired, or deliberately slowly as though he was not able to understand. Do allow time for the person to process your question or comment. Don’t be miffed if they do not look directly at you; eye contact is generally a difficult action.

This quick overview of autism is not intended, really, to be the whole story. The story lies somewhere out there, in your community, your schools, your workforce, and your neighborhood. Today it is purported to be the fastest-growing developmental disability known with hundreds of kids being diagnosed each day.

April is Autism Awareness month, so get aware. Educate yourself in the best way possible, by getting to know the people with autism. Open yourself up to a whole new world. The autism community would like you to know that autism is a puzzle. But you can be a piece of the solution.