Sociological and Cultural Aspects of Autism

Heart pillow with autism ribbon

Learning the sociological and cultural aspects of autism provides more insight into the complex definition of autism. The characteristics of autism form a distinct pattern and range of behaviors that can be viewed as a set of symptoms, or as a part of a cultural identity. Recognizing the culture of autism can also affect treatment approaches. Discover why a significant segment of the autistic community sees autism as an identity, not a medical condition.

Autism: Medical Condition or Cultural Identity?

The traditional medical community views autism as a neurological condition of unknown cause characterized by significant communication and social skill impairments that require treatment, and actively conducts research to find a cure. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders IV (DSM IV-TR) defines autism as one of five pervasive developmental disorders that includes childhood disintegrative disorder, Rett's disorder, Asperger's syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

Although a cure has not yet been found, current research has identified many effective treatments for common symptoms. The goals of medical treatments include improving social and communication skills as well as reducing or eliminating undesirable behaviors experienced by some affected individuals.

However, a significant segment of the autism community sees all of the characteristics of autism as a cultural identity and not a medical condition. The characteristics are not symptoms, but rather a different world view and way of relating that does not need correction. To them, curing autism would be eliminating the very essence of who they are. In fact, an autism rights movement is growing that includes individuals with autism spectrum disorders as well their family and friends, and some autism experts.

Additionally, there is also a middle viewpoint that recognizes autism as a culture and medical condition. A growing number of experts and members of the autism community are starting to recognize the cultural aspects of autism when approaching autism treatment options to develop more effective interventions.

Sociological and Cultural Aspects of Autism

Although each person experiences autism differently with varying levels of impairment, the sociological and cultural aspects of autism demonstrate that individuals with autism share a common set of characteristics and relating to the world.

Characteristics of Autism As a Culture

Is autism a culture? One of the cultural anthropology definitions of culture is a common set of observable traits, behaviors, communication, social customs and beliefs shared by a group of people. Each case of autism is unique but there are certain common characteristics generally shared by many autistic people, which may include:

  • Observable traits: A person may appear withdrawn from his peers, and does not generally like to socialize. During childhood, he does not engage in pretend play and has early childhood developmental milestone delays. He experiences a significant degree of communication, language and social difficulties.
  • Communication and language: The person can have limited to no speech. She may experience echolalia and repeat words out of context. She has trouble with verbal instructions and learns better with visual aids. She generally has trouble communicating her emotions and understanding the emotions of others.
  • Behaviors: Certain behaviors are associated with autism, such as stimming and obsessive behaviors. He may have sensory processing issues and engage in repetitive and self-stimulating behavior (stimming), such as as rocking back and forth, hand flapping or skin picking. He may have an unusually intense interest in a subject or activity that appears obsessive like lining up objects for hours.
  • Social practices: A person with autism often prefers solitude and either has trouble making friends or has not interest in socializing. She may appear generally socially awkward and have difficulties with two-way conversation like talking at people rather than with them. She often takes things literally and misses subtle innuendo, gestures or social cues. She may misinterpret another person's mood and react inappropriately.
  • Customs: The customs of the autism community range from receiving treatment for various symptoms and participating in support groups to involvement in autism awareness activities and the autism rights movement.

Autism Rights Movement

The autism rights movement believes autism is a cultural identity that should be protected, and not a medical condition that needs a cure. These civil rights organizations fight medical treatments that eliminate autism symptoms and research for cures. Many of these groups are not against all treatment since severe cases of autism may require intervention that improves quality of life. Rather, the groups seek humane treatments that preserve the integrity of the autism identity. Popular autism rights organizations include Aspies for Freedom, Autistic Self Discovery Network and Autism Network International.

Benefits of Understanding Autism Culture

Celebrating the sociological and cultural aspects of autism can help people recognize the unique gifts and personalities of autistic individuals. Looking beyond the medical label and seeing the cultural identity can help parents better understand their autistic child's interests and connect with him through activities he will enjoy. Considering autism culture can help doctors and therapists figure out the best treatment plan for an affected individual. Teachers may find new educational activities that will help autistic students learn by approaching autism as a culture. As autism cultural awareness grows, there is new hope that a greater understanding of autism will lead to better treatments, support services and programs for autistic individuals.

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Sociological and Cultural Aspects of Autism