Autism: The Disorder

The Burkhard Center for Autism Education and Research provides students with information about autism. Photo by Alicia Keene

Autism is a neurological spectrum disorder that researchers strongly suspect has a genetic component, but the cause of autism is still unknown, according to Wesley H. Dotson, Ph.D., an assistant professor and the director of outpatient services at the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research.

There are three areas of symptoms of autism that look wildly different across a variety and range of students, he said.

The first deficit is a severe impairment in social and nonverbal communication because autistic people are very logical and concrete people, he said.

He said autistic people have a hard time recognizing communications such as other people’s facial expressions, body language, emotions, and sarcasm.

“You say ‘go fly a kite,’ they start looking for a kite,” he said.

The second deficit, he said, is impairments in language, which ranges from echoing other people to being very literal in meaning.

He said the third characteristic is having an insistence on sameness and repetitive patterns of behavior that manifest in a wide variety of ways.

People with autism have routines or ways they have to do things the same every time, he said, and there will not be any obvious reason for their fixed pattern of behavior.

For example, he said some people with autism engage in hand flapping or will only eat food that is brown, white or yellow.

“They will maybe only wear one particular color of clothing,” Dotson said. “Maybe, they cannot wear cotton, but they can well wear wool.”

He said these three main autistic characteristic symptoms could differ based on an individual’s function level.

Dotson said higher functioning autistic people may have higher IQs and wide vocabularies, but there might be a break down in their social language such as not knowing slang or understanding sarcasm.

“They really struggle with something that is not written like a textbook, basically,” Dotson said.

High functioning autistic people may have fixed patterns of behavior, he said, such as always having to study in the same chair with the same light or always having to wear the same type of clothing every day.

He said they are capable of being polite and carry on a conversation, but they may not have friends because they do not know how to move past being an acquaintance with another person.

Dotson said it is more obvious something is wrong with lower functioning autistic people.

He said they may not talk at all, have lower IQs, and their repetitive patterns and behaviors include large motor movements such as rocking back and forth.

They may never learn shared, joint attention, he said, which most kids develop by the age of two, but most people with autism have to be explicitly taught.

Shared, joint attention occurs when an individual guides another person’s attention towards an object they want by looking at the object, he said.

“Then, most people will look at what I’m looking at. If I am like, ‘I want the phone,’ you will look down at the phone,” Dotson said while pointing at a phone on his desk and looking at it.

About Alicia Keene

Graduate Executive Director
Alicia Keene is a dual master's student from Austin, Texas studying mass communication and business. One day, she hopes to work for a prominent news publication in a major city as either a reporter or producer.

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