Autism: What is it?

Although autism is extremely common among American youth, it often seems as if it is forgotten and misunderstood by the those who do not have autism, or are not related to someone with autism.

According to the Autism Society of America, nearly 1 in 68 children in the United States have some sort of autism spectrum disorder. However, no two autistic people are alike, as autism functions on a “spectrum” that encompasses different behaviors and conditions.

“ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees,” said the Autism Society of America’s website.

“There are different levels on the spectrum, and some students need a lot more assistance, some students need a lot less assistance,” said school counselor J. Jones. “They’re very unique, very individual, there are a million points on the spectrum, and every student on the spectrum is different, just like every student in the high school is different.”

People with autism often struggle with making eye contact and holding conversation, and many have sensory issues and motor issues. This can cause issues for students at high school, due to high activity that can cause sensory overload.

“If they are at the high school, students typically struggle with social issues and with sensory issues,” said R. Mann, the Vice President of Operations for the Education and Autism divisions of Northwestern Human Services. “Fluorescent lights, sounds of bells ringing, busy hallways with all the extra buzz and people accidentally bumping into people [can all cause problems]. This can be due to [students with autism] being hypersensitive to noise or touch.”

At many high schools across the country, there are services available to assist students with autism. One of the most common supports in place for autistic students is an individualized education plan (IEP), which lists in-class services needed by the student in order to succeed in school.

“Some of those students have what is called an individualized education plan, if they also have learning disabilities as well.” said Jones. “They may also have an individualized education plan just for the diagnosis of autism. They may not have a learning disability, but they are definitely affected by how things are presented to them in class, or how they may get along in a group, or if they work better individually.”

Even with these supports, however, autistic students often still struggle socially. This is partially due to a culture that has become hostile towards autistic people over the past few years, namely due to the rise of internet culture. has multiple pages devoted to the use of autism as an insult or slur, while Instagram’s autism hashtag shows photos of real autistic people alongside memes deemed “edgy” or insulting.

However, Mann feels that other students can make autistic students feel more welcome by learning more about the disorder.

“One of the things that is really important is understanding, and having sensitivity to it,” said Mann. When a student is having a conversation with an autistic person, Mann suggests, they should try to understand their perspective. “Take a step back and think ‘Hmmm, maybe this is a different approach.’”

Students can learn more about autism by visiting the website of one of many autism advocacy groups, or of an autism research center.

Websites to Visit for More Information:

Autism Self Advocacy Network:
This organization is run almost entirely by people with autism, and provides plenty of information on ASD, as well as editorials expressing the true opinions of people with autism.
The Autism Society of America:
The Autism Society of America is a grassroots organization that advocates for autistic people, both through social change and legislation.
Organization for Autism Research:
This organization uses science to help inform people with autism and their families of solutions to medical, educational, and social needs of autistic people.