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What It's Like to Have Autism

For caregivers, understanding autism symptoms is key to coping with them.

What Do Autism Symptoms Mean?

What are some aspects of life that are difficult for people on the autistic spectrum?

Sound. Intense sensitivity to sound is a common autism symptom. 

Loud noises may be painful. The din of a city street or a mall can be too much. When overwhelmed, people on the autistic spectrum may cover their ears to try to block out the noise. They may also start up self-soothing behaviors such as rocking or shaking their hands. Some people with autism also have central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), a condition that makes it difficult for them to perceive subtle differences in sound and language.

Touch. Just like sound, physical sensations can be exaggerated and overwhelming to people with autism. Feelings that most people barely register -- the sensation of clothing on the body, a breeze -- can be unpleasant. 

Janice McGreevy, of Browns Mills, NJ, has an 8-year-old son with autism. Since age 1, his haircuts have been a terrible ordeal, but only recently could he explain why. “He told me that the individual hairs, when they touch his skin, feel like needles,” she says.

Communication. Difficulty communicating is a common autism symptom – one of the early signs of the condition is a delay in speech. But this doesn’t indicate a lack of intelligence. Instead, many children with autism simply can’t discern how language works. That can be terribly difficult and isolating. 

“I remember a lot of frustration when I was nonverbal as a child and couldn’t communicate my needs,” says Shore, who did not speak until he was 4. Although some people with autism never learn to speak, most do. But even in those who master language, communication – real understanding – can still be a problem. “One of the hardest things for many people with autism is expressing or even recognizing how they feel,” says Dawson. “They’re often really out of touch with their internal states and feelings.” That’s why some who are very bright -- with awe-inspiring vocabularies -- may still retreat when overwhelmed, engaging in autism symptoms such as repetitive behaviors instead of explaining what’s bothering them. They’re simply unable to articulate it, even internally.

 Socialization. People with autism are sometimes pegged as loners who want to keep to themselves. But Shore disagrees.

“There’s this myth that people with autism don’t want to socialize,” says Shore. “The problem is that they don’t know how to socialize.” The unspoken rules of social behavior – things that most other people pick up and use unconsciously – may remain mysteries to people with autism. The result is that socializing, both as a child and an adult, is difficult and frustrating. It can lead to a lot of anxiety.

Some people with autism are forthright to a fault, says Adam Berman, a 22-year-old from Potomac, MD, who was diagnosed with autism at 18 months. “A kid with autism might walk up to a woman and just tell her she’s ugly,” Berman tells WebMD. “We sometimes tell the truth too much.”

On the other hand, Berman says that there’s an implicit advantage for parents from this particular autism symptom. “I see a lot if [neurotypical] kids who can sweet talk their way out of anything,” Berman says. “But kids with autism are terrible liars. I can’t lie my way out of a paper bag.”

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