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Taking a fresh look at autism


Zoe Satherley
10 November 2009
People interested in the latest research and therapy approaches in autism will find a lot to engage them at an upcoming Southern Cross University lecture.

The second in the popular Professorial Lecture Series, the free talk gives members of the wider community the chance to come onto campus and engage with research being undertaken by University staff.

The lecture, titled ‘The triad of impairment in autism revisited’ will be given by autism researcher and Professor of Nursing in the School of Health and Human Sciences, Professor Andrew Cashin.

Professor Cashin also conducts a private practice as a mental health nurse practitioner focused on the care of people with autism and their families, based at the medical centre on the Lismore campus. He is happy for members of the public to visit him there.

During his talk he will discuss how research is informing a new way to think in relation to intervention to support people with autism.

“While we already know the ‘triad of impairment’ features which help diagnose autism in a person – impaired communication, impaired social skills and impaired behavioural flexibility – this diagnosis by itself does little to help families, teachers and carers devise the best possible therapy,” Professor Cashin said.

“Rolling off lists of potential behaviours related to a diagnosis of autism isn’t as useful as giving people a basic understanding that someone with autism has a unique way of being based on a unique cognitive processing style.

“This processing style is ubiquitous and static – it is there all of the time, underlying everything, while autistic behaviours can be variable and fluctuating.”

Professor Cashin said the processing style was neither normal nor abnormal, but rather a feature of autism and was best described as ‘not neuro-typical’. In broad terms, there are only two main human cognitive processing styles – those with autism and those without autism.

“People with autism are visual processors as opposed to linguistic processors of information,” he said.

“This is ‘impairment’ as the majority of us process information differently – we process it linguistically – by that I mean we have a kind of internal personal language which lends itself to the formation of abstract concepts and to storing data and experiences as an integrated body of knowledge that can be referred to each time a new situation arises, like going to a personal in-head filing cabinet.

“A person with autism does not have that filing cabinet. People with autism have poor abstraction abilities and hence have great difficulty forming a unified base of knowledge about the world.

“For them, information is stored on the basis of visual, as opposed to linguistic code, and stored in chunks in the order received without being unified with past experience.

“When confronted with a novel situation, which may be a familiar situation in a new visual context, they may in fact have no behaviour to try – and therefore not have a clue what to do. Anxiety rises and the only way to control it is to engage in a fight or flight response.”

Professor Cashin said that autism does not affect what some people would call temperament or personality, so some people with autism lean predominantly towards internalising and some to externalising.

Externalising in autism often means behaviour related to taking control. This taking control may be through tantrums or the application of rigid ritualistic ways of doing things to avoid any novel stimuli or situation. Internalising may well be engaging in obsessive pursuits or thought patterns.

“My contention therefore is that while the original triad of impairment in autism was extremely helpful in identifying and monitoring the progress of people with autism, it was a transitional step,” Professor Cashin said.

“The actual triad of impairment rests at the level of cognitive processing. Understanding the cognitive processing deficits better allows the construction of intervention to support people with autism.”

Professor Cashin’s talk will be held tomorrow in room U-231 at the Lismore campus. It will be available on DVD for those unable to attend. For more information and to RSVP, email Donna McIntyre [email protected] or phone 6620 3503.

For interested media, Professor Cashin is available to talk about his autism research.

Photo: Professor Andrew Cashin is encouraging a fresh look at autism.