As a Paediatric Occupational Therapists, we are always meeting and interacting with families who have children living with autism. Many times, during our initial visit, parents will describe the ‘severity’ of their child’s autism, often using language such as ‘my child is living with severe autism’ or, ‘my child has high functioning autism’. But everyone with a diagnosis of autism falls on the spectrum, hence the term ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’.
Let’s take a moment to list some of the different roles our brain is required to perform; the ability to use and understand language, process information, interpret sensory information, engage in a social environment, manage emotions, control the movements of the body, or concentrate and attend in different environments. Many of these tasks are challenging for individuals who are living on the autism spectrum. Would this mean that each child living with what society considers ‘high function autism’, would be able to successfully perform in all but one or two of these roles? In an article by the National Institute of Mental Health (2018), the diagnosis of autism has been described as a spectrum, due to the wide variety in the type of symptoms experienced by each individual. Now consider the definition of a spectrum: ‘A complete or wide range of related qualities, ideas or activities’ (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries 2019).
Maybe you are familiar with the colour spectrum, where there is typically darker blue at one end and a bright red colour at the opposite end. When looking at, and considering this colour spectrum, Lynch (2019) has explained in her article for ‘The Aspergian’, that each colour is considered and visible on the spectrum, not a fact of ‘red being more blue than blue’. So why would we consider individuals living on the autism spectrum as having more severe autism then another individual living on the spectrum?
I do understand the confusion when reading an article by Raising Children Network (2018) which explains the diagnosis of Autism from the DSM-5. The article highlights that when a diagnosis is given, one of three severity rankings are also given. However, each level or ‘severity’ of autism results in the need for support, it does not mean that those individuals with a ‘lower level’ diagnosis can go through school or their everyday lives without support being provided. I interpret this as a child with a ‘lower level’ diagnosis having strengths in areas that other individuals with a diagnosis may find challenging. But this interpretation can also be reversed, where a child with a ‘level 3’ diagnosis may have strengths in areas that another individual living with autism may find challenging.
All in all, everyone is different. We all have our own unique way of interacting with our environment and those within our environment. Personally, I come from a bigger family, where relatives, or even people we do not know, would look at my siblings and I and comment ‘wow, you all look the same!’ or ‘Are you twins?’, when in fact we are all individuals, with some similarities but many differences. So, when we meet an individual who is living with autism, or we are describing our sibling, child or student living with autism, let’s consider them as individuals. Let’s consider their strengths and all the things they have to offer within their environment. And from this, we can determine where support and intervention can benefit them to work through their challenges and have more positive interactions within their environment. Let’s not focus on trying to change them, but rather how we can support them in being happy and successful in their environment.