Lighting Up the Law in Blue: A Primer on the Autism Spectrum

  • By:Ron Payne
Ed. Note: This article was authored by Kimberly J. Byrd, Esq., who is a former partner of Payne Law, PLLC and mother of four wonderful children. She can be reached at kbyrd.jdwfu2013@gmail.com

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What is Autism?

Broadly speaking, autism, or the autism spectrum, is a collection of complex neurodevelopmental conditions, ranging in severity, that are characterized by communication difficulties, social impairments, and repetitive, stereotypical, and restricted movements. The conditions which fall along the autism spectrum include Asperger’s syndrome, autism, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, and childhood disintegrative disorder.

Symptoms of autism can include some or all of the following:

  • Abnormal social approach
  • Failure of normal back-and-forth conversation
  • Reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect
  • Failure to initiate or respond to social interactions – including, but not limited to, poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; abnormalities in eye contact and body language; deficits in understanding and use of gestures; total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication; difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; and absence of interest in peers.
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech
  • Lining up toys or objects
  • Idiosyncratic phrases
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal and nonverbal behavior
  • Difficulties with transitions
  • Hyper or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
  • Apparent indifference to pain and/or temperature

The symptoms of autism vary from person to person, as does the severity of the condition. Autism is often accompanied by other medical and developmental conditions. Approximately one half of all persons with autism also suffer from concurrent intellectual deficits, while the other half possess average or above average intellectual abilities. (More information regarding symptoms and diagnostic criteria can be obtained from the American Psychiatric Association)

Some terms often heard in discussions about autism symptoms include stimming, meltdowns, and wandering. Stimming refers to the tendency of autistic persons to exhibit repetitive or stereotypical movements in response to stressors in their environment. These movements often include things such as flapping their arms or spinning around in circles. Meltdowns occur when an autistic person becomes overwhelmed by sensory or other factors in their environment. The person may scream, cry, and otherwise lash out against their environment. To an unknowing eye, autistic children having a meltdown are often mistaken for spoiled children having a simple “temper tantrum.” The difficulties autistic persons face with understanding social boundaries is often accompanied by a misunderstanding of physical boundaries as well, which can result in wandering. Autistic persons, particularly children, may wander away from controlled environments, such as homes and schools, when they become fixated on something outside of that environment, at times resulting in tragic consequences.

What Causes Autism?

In the early twentieth century, the answer to this question was simple – bad parenting. While that stereotype still persists in our society, scientists have put forth many other possible explanations for autism in recent decades. These have included vaccines, genetics, pollution, food additives, mercury, plastics, and circumcision (yes, really). Most recent research in this area indicates that genetics are likely the cause of autism, as demonstrated by a study of twins released last month in the UK which estimates that genetic influences are responsible for 74% to 98% of all cases of autism. (Autism is largely down to genetics, BBC) Lending support to the idea that autism is genetically caused, in my own family, it is my children who share identical DNA who also share the diagnosis of autism.

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Differing Views of Autism

Two opposing views have developed regarding autism which affect autism’s treatment in medical, legal, and educational circles – the “cure” camp and the neurodiversity movement.

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According to the “cure” camp, autism is a puzzle to be solved. The primary concerns of those who hold this view of autism are determining autism’s cause, developing and implementing treatments to make autistic children able to function in “normal” society, and finding a cure. This view of autism is most often held by parents of autistic children and is supported by advocacy organizations seeking to raise money for research and treatment.

The neurodiversity movement, conversely, views autism as not a disorder, but a different way of thinking and being. The primary concerns of those who hold this view of autism are preventing discrimination against autistic individuals by “neurotypicals” (i.e., people who do not have autism) and providing autistic individuals with assistance to navigate and function in society. This view of autism is primarily advocated by high-functioning autistic individuals and their families, as well as advocacy groups whose goal is to provide support to autistic individuals.



Over the month of April, we will be blogging about several areas of the law and how the law affects, and is affected by, those with autism. We invite you to visit our website, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and read and share our blog as we do our part to raise autism awareness.

   Join us as we Light Up the Law In Blue.



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