Many parents asked me, "My teenage child often stays at home and with limited social life, is he autistic?" In fact, most of them are with limited understanding of "Autism" and are thus confused.
Indeed, people with limited social interest do not mean that they are suffering from autism. In Hong Kong, we named those teenagers with limited social interest/life as "Hidden Youth" (「隱蔽青年」). The term comes from Japan, which refers to young people who stay at home all day. They do not have job or go to school; having weak interpersonal relationship yet active on the Internet. Social and economic impacts as well as their own relationship problems are attributed as the causes of this phenomenon. However, unlike Autism, it is not an inborn problem.
Autism is an inborn developmental disorder. Most symptoms are manifested before the age of three. The extent of impairments and problems are varied, but they usually have three core impairment areas:
(A) Impaired social interaction: It appears that they live in their own world, showing little interest in others, and a lack of social awareness. For instances:
- Although they may show curiosity towards people, still fail to develop friendship or interact with other children due to insufficient social capacity.
Elicit inappropriate social responses that lead to embarrassment, rejection, and teasing.
(B) Impaired communication ability: A majority of the sufferers have delayed language development, and some may not produce meaningful speech. Even if language has been developed, it may not be used to communicate with others or communicate in different forms. For instances:
- Difficulty taking turns during a conversation, often communicating in a one-sided fashion, opting to speak but not to listen.
- To lack imagination as a youngster and to have difficulty with imaginative play. As compared to others, imagination continues to be weak even at an older age and difficult in understanding abstract meanings.
(C) Repetitive and restricted behavior and interests:
- Can be preoccupied in particular interests all day long (for example, public transport vehicles, octopus cards, financial information) such that it affects daily functioning.
- Rigid adherence in the performance of particular daily activities (for example, following fixed activity schedules, arranging objects in a certain way, insisting on taking certain pathways) such that any change may bring about irritability or tempers tantrums.
Since Autism is an innate impairment, up until now, there is no therapy that can cure it. Yet, studies show that early training, tailored made academic curriculum and regular monitoring can help sufferers to develop their potentials and learn socialization skills. The degree of improvement varies among individuals.
Conversely, the "Hidden Youth" issues still remained resolved by social scientists and other professionals.