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Understanding and Embracing Autism (ASD)

It’s not easy for Autistic people to process the stimulation of this world. Take time to acknowledge the effort they put in to adapt to their daily surroundings. Ella Wu

What is the first thing that pop in mind when you think about autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

Introverts? Social challenges? Sensory sensitivity? Poker face? Repetitive behaviors?

ASD is a neurological and developmental disorder caused by differences in the brain. It can cause social, communication, and behavior challenges. Autistic people may experience difficulty and challenges in motor skills, sensory processing, emotional regulation, handwriting, and self-care ability during the development, which can impact the performances in school and at home.

Can Autistic people become ‘normal’?

There is no such thing as being normal. Autistic people can live independently and functionally. Everyone is different, and the difference makes each of us unique.

A person’s perspective will determine how they see autism. A person may see difficulty with communication, and see only negative things in autistic person. As an OT, I see the same characteristics as strengths with persistence and concentration. Every person has potential and capacity to be successful.

A lot of autistic people have very good persistence and concentration.

What strengths do you see in Autistic people?

Credit: ACTO

How can I understand ASD better?

Ready? Buckle up! Let’s enter ASD’s brain!

The way the ASD brain works is like a train going down a track; it’s going on a straight and one-way line, where everything is predictable. The train does not leave the tracks. A person may have a very rigid schedule. Change may be difficult and learning new things must be done very incrementally and rigidly. They may benefit from simple, direct instructions.

How does this illustration relate to different kinds of thinking?

Abstract things are tricky for ASD. They tend to understand better with concrete things.

ASD can struggle with executive functioning, including organizing, planning, attention span, following multiple directions, which can impact their performance in daily living. For autistic people, things with simple and clear instructions are easier for them to understand and follow.

Some of the strengths that come with concrete thinking include attention to detail, fixation, and a large concrete knowledge base

In a daily living basis, autistic people can struggle with:

  1. Comfort Zones

A comfort zone is a psychological state in which a person is in control of the situation or environment. Getting out of a comfort zone is not easy for everyone because it means changes, feeling uncomfortable, and insecurity.

For ASD, it could take a longer time to adapt in a new environment, and accept new or unfamiliar things. For example, going to a new restaurant or going to school and meeting new people can be a challenge. Autistic people often dislike situations or things that are unexpected, unfamiliar, or out of control.

2. Social Skills

Socialization can be fun and scary. We are not able to 100% accurately predict what others feel, respond, react during the communication. It’s like opening a gift at Christmas. However, socializing with people, especially with new people, can mean stepping out comfort zones to deal with unfamiliar situations.

Socialization can be a different story for autistic people.

  1. Abstract things are tricky. Getting hints, understanding facial expression or body languages can be difficult for them.

  2. They express themselves and communicate differently, which may lead to misunderstanding or misconception.

  3. They get distracted easily and following multiple directions may be hard; you may see them losing eye-contact or losing track of the conversation.

Loyalty and empathy are the strengths of autistic people. Autistic people tend to be loyal and empathetic to people and animals. A lot of time, they are accepting and non-judgmental.

3. Handwriting

Most people think writing is an easy task. Handwriting is actually a high functioning task that requires a lot of skills, including the following:

Motor and motor planning skills (gross and fine), cognitive skills, executive functioning, visual-motor skills, cognition, working memory, language, attention span, impulsive control, organization, sensory processing…etc.

Think about this…when we are writing a letter or drawing a picture, what do we need, besides pencil and paper?

Our bodies need to sit up on a chair with strength and control. Our brains need capability to understand alphabets, upper and lower cases letters, different shapes and colorings. When everything combines together, we need our brain and body to integrate properly in order to respond and perform tasks.

It is common to see autistic kids show no interest or little interest in drawing/coloring or struggle with handwriting tasks. It is also common to see them demonstrating with improper pencil grasping patters or handwriting performance.

However, some autistic people have a talent for art and an inherent sense of creativity. Autistic people can be extremely creative thinkers.

4. Self-care and Hygiene

Self-care is the ability to take care of ourselves in daily living. This includes getting dressed, brushing teeth, using bathroom, or taking shower…etc.

Kids enter first grade in elementary school around age 5, and are expected to be independent and functional at school. It is important for kids to be independent in self-care ability around this age.

Autistic kids typically have developmental delay where they may experience difficulty learning or performing self-care during the developmental stage. An example includes getting dressed with a shirt. Some kids may struggle with understanding front and back, or in and out. Some may require assistance as they may have hard time remembering and following steps.

How can we help Autistic people?

  1. Routine

Humans thrive on a routine and are afraid of the unknown. We feel comfortable and secure with predictable and clearly defined things, situations, and environments. Routines are particularly helpful and important for ASD because of their repetitive patterns of behaviors, decreased threshold with changes, and struggle with executive functioning.

2. Visual Support

We receive 90% of the information from vision. Autistic people can benefit from visual support like using pictures or other visual items, to better understand the context and follow instructions.

An example of using visual schedule to help kids following steps in dressing.

3. Practice

The beginning is always the hardest. But practice makes perfect! It may take 10 times for a person to learn how to ride a horse, or it may take 20 or 100 times for another person to learn.

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” – Alexander the Great

Last but not least:

Occupational therapy can help autistic people to light up their world!


Humans Process Visual Data Better

I am proud to be an occupational therapist. Ella Wu, OTD, OTR/L Doctor of Occupational Therapy
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