What is Autism?

How autism is defined depends somewhat on point of view. Now and in the past, psychologists, physicians, parents, and those on the autism spectrum, have used different language and emphasis to describe it. Broadly, autism is a complex neurological variation affecting every aspect of how a person experiences the world, and it is recognized as a behavioral profile that poses difficulties for forming typical social relations.

In the clinical context, Autism Spectrum Disorder is classified as a developmental disability that occurs within the first three years of life. The diagnostic criteria describe persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple settings, and the severity of the autism is determined by the person’s apparent degree of social impairment. The clinician looks at how many and how intense are a person’s restricted, repetitive behaviors in speech, movement, and interests. And from the clinician’s perspective, the earlier autism is identified the better, as research shows that early intervention with therapies increases a child’s chance of success for getting on track to age-appropriate cognitive and emotional functioning.

At the same time, some experts, such as Dr. Barry Prizant, oppose diagnosing ASD by a checklist of deficits. For Prizant, enumerating problem “autistic” behaviours sidesteps the more important task of trying to understand why they occur. He defines autism as difficulty keeping emotionally and physiologically well regulated, which most people can do without thinking. But the neurological variation of autism makes a person more vulnerable to anxiety, confusion, and discomfort, and less able to cope with these feelings. Hence coping behaviours arise, and the difficulty is in offering the right support.

This definition of autism shares much in common with that of Dr. Hans Asperger, one of the first to report on it. In Steve Silberman’s history of autism, NeuroTribes, he tells how at Asperger’s clinic in 1940s Vienna, staff focused on “looking with open eyes” to understand each of over 200 children’s needs. Without underplaying the communication challenges they faced, Asperger “concluded that the innate gifts of these children were as central to the condition he was describing as their social difficulties.” He noted their aptitudes for original thinking, deep focus, maths and sciences, and labelled these characteristics “autistic intelligence.”

Today, this view of autism as a combination of special needs, differences and gifts is shared by many individuals on the spectrum. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, for example, describes autism as:

  1. Different sensory experiences.
  2. Non-standard ways of learning and approaching problem solving.
  3. Deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects.
  4. Atypical, sometimes repetitive, movement.
  5. Need for consistency, routine, and order.
  6. Difficulties in understanding and expressing language as used in typical communication, both verbal and non-verbal.
  7. Difficulties in understanding and expressing typical social interaction.

Even with this list of common characteristics, however, there is no typical person with autism. The characteristics are expressed uniquely in each individual. As Jim Sinclair wrote in a seminal essay, autism is inseparable from the person themselves:

“Autism isn’t something a person has, or a “shell” that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence.”

Many experts agree there is no clear line between autistic and “normal” behaviour. Unlike diseases, it cannot be cured. Some would say we are all on the spectrum. With it’s complex neurological underpinnings, much remains to be researched and understood.

Meanwhile, many therapies have been developed to ameliorate autism’s physical and cognitive symptoms. Some are scientifically demonstrated to be effective, others are well-documented primarily by parents, and a few are considered experimental. In the film, parents Carly and Stef try a range of therapies to help their son Oscar. Moreover, they pursue therapies at their own expense because of too-long wait lists for services funded in Ontario. Provinicial coverage for autism therapies varies widely across the country; a list of resources by province is maintained here.

On this website you’ll find an overview of therapies that Carly and Stef pursued. There are for information only. If you are the parent of a child with autism, it’s important to consult your child’s doctor before beginning any program.

Bonus Video

In the process of making this film, we collected a lot of additional material we wanted to share. We hope you find it helpful.

Temple Grandin: On early intervention

Dr. Temple Grandin discusses the importance of early intervention when your child shows signs of possible autism. Particularly in cases of non-verbal autism, parents must ensure that the child is regularly receiving one-on-one attention to improve their social and communication skills.

Temple Grandin: Important people and events in her life

Dr. Temple Grandin talks about some of the people throughout her life who challenged her to grow and develop her strengths.


Temple Grandin: Understanding the autism spectrum

Temple Grandin describes the broad range of symptoms associated with autism spectrum and the difficulty in making general assumptions about autism.

Discover More

Learn more about the people and ideas featured in the film.

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Bonus Material
Produced in association with:
Produced with the participation of:
The Government of Manitoba -Manitoba Film & Video Production Tax Credit
Digital media produced with the participation of:
The Government of Manitoba -Manitoba Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit
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