World Autism Month is an annual event that takes place every April. Autism Charities from all over the world come together to organise events and spread the word about autism, as well as raise funds for research and support projects.

In the UK The National Autistic Society (NAS) is running World Autism Awareness Week from 2nd – 8th April. Earlier in the year they also organised the first ever ‘Schools’ Autism Awareness Week’ which took place in mid-March.

Last year they managed to raise an incredible £235,395, and this year they’re hoping to do even better. But World Autism Month is just as much about spreading awareness about autism as it is raising funds to help those diagnosed with it. So what is autism, and who does it affect?

 

What is Autism?

Around 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum. Including their families, this means that autism affects an estimated 2.8 million people.

It is a lifelong developmental disability. While it is not considered a learning disability or mental health problem, some sufferers may have an accompanying learning disability or mental health problem as a result. It is a spectrum disorder, which means it affects sufferers differently, although there are often some clear similarities between their symptoms. Primarily, autism affects the way a person communicates with and relates to other people, as well as also having an affect on how they make sense of the world around them.

 

What are the symptoms?

There are a wide range of symptoms, which can be put into two main groups:

1. Problems with social interaction and communication

  • Difficulties with awareness and understanding of other people’s feelings and emotions
  • Delayed language development
  • Inability to start conversations or take part in them properly

2. Restrictive and repetitive patterns of thought, interests and physical behaviours

  • Making repetitive physical movements, such as hand tapping or twisting
  • Becoming upset when set routines are disrupted
  • Suffering from other mental health conditions (ADHD, anxiety, depression etc.)
  • Some form of learning difficulty

There are a number of other symptoms that may or may not be present in an autistic individual:

  • Love of routines
  • Sensory sensitivity (they may be hypersensitive or lack sensitivity)
  • Special interests (e.g. intense interest in a subject, such as art, trains or computers)

Autism spectrum disorders can also be separated into different types of autism, such as Asperger Syndrome, classic autism and high-functioning autism.

 

Who does Autism affect?

Having an impact on almost 3 million lives in the UK, autism affects a considerable amount of people. Life for sufferers can come with significant challenges, and it is estimated that just 15% of people on the autism spectrum are in full-time paid employment.

 

The Gender Split

Many more males are diagnosed with autism than women, with studies putting the ratio anywhere between 2:1 to 16:1 of autistic men to women. In a study by Lorna Wing, it was determined that the ratios differ significantly depending upon the specific type of autism:

  • In high functioning types of autism, such as Asperger’s, there were 15 times as many males diagnosed than females
  • In cases of sufferers with autism and a learning disorder, there were 2 males for every female diagnosed

This suggests that females are less likely to develop autism, and if they do, they are more likely to be affected by further learning disabilities. It also suggests that less high-functioning autistic females are diagnosed than men.

Due to the fact that autism presents differently in sufferers, particularly between males and females, it is speculated that many women are not diagnosed, as the criteria for diagnosis is heavily based on symptoms shown commonly in males. This means that it is difficult to know just how many people are suffering from autism, as many may be falling through the cracks, so to speak.

Autism Speaks, the U.S. charity for autism estimates that autism affects 1 in 68 children, and urges that it grows in prevalence every year. Whether this is due to increased awareness or more cases is yet to be determined.

 

Why do people get autism?

As of now there are no confirmed reasons behind why some people have autism, while others don’t. The NAS continues to research the causes of autism spectrum disorder, and suggest that there is a genetic factor involved. But scientists are still trying to work out which gene(s) could be responsible. There are also arguments for other factors, such as environmental causes.

 

Local Support

If you think you, or someone you know may be suffering from autism, book an appointment with your GP. Sufferers from autism benefit greatly by getting the right support, and it doesn’t hurt to pop in to check your symptoms with your doctor if you think you could be affected.

There are many support groups in Richmond for autism sufferers and their families, as well as a dedicated branch of the NAS: NAS Richmond.

Richmond council also offers regular drop-in groups, as well as other services for care and assessment.

 

Get involved

Whether autism directly affects you or not, you can get involved by taking part in World Autism Awareness Week. You can join one of the Night Walks for Autism, which are taking place in Manchester and London, or visit a Pop-Up shop near you to support the cause by buying some unique crafts and gifts.

If you can’t make it out but still want to help, you can also donate via the website.