|Characteristics of Autism
Although every person with autism is unique, some characteristics are viewed as particularly important in
the diagnosis of autism.
These characteristics fall into four major categories:
• Communication skills
• Social interaction characteristics
• Unusual behavior traits
• Learning approaches
Other characteristics of behavior and learning in children with autism can be categorized as:
• Unusual patterns of attention
• Irregular responses to sensory stimuli
All children with autism experience language and communication difficulties, although there are considerable
differences in language ability among individuals. Some are non-verbal while others may have extensive
language with deficits in the area of pragmatics (the social use of language). People with autism may seem
caught up in a private world in which communication is insignificant. This is not a deliberate act but rather a
failure to communicate.
Language difficulties that may be present in children with autism include:
• Difficulties with non-verbal communication
• Inappropriate facial expressions
• Unusual use of gestures
• Lack of eye contact
• Odd body postures
• Indifferent in mutual or shared focus of attention
• Delay in or lack of expressive language skills
• Significant differences in oral language, for those who do develop language
• Unusual pitch or tone
• Faster or slower rate than normal
• Monotone or unvaried voice quality
• Repetitive and peculiar speech patterns
• Echolalia speech, immediate or delayed exact repetition of the others words
• Appears to be non-meaningful, but may indicate an attempt to communicate
• Indicates the ability to produce speech and to imitate, and may offer a communication or cognitive purpose
for the child
• Restricted vocabulary
• Mainly uses nouns
• Limited in social functions
• Repeatedly talks about one topic and has difficulty changing topics
• Problems initiating the communication
• Difficulty using unwritten rules
• Inability to maintain conversation on a topic
• Inappropriate interrupting
• Inflexibility in style of conversation, repetitive style of speaking
People with autism often have difficulty in comprehending verbal information, following long verbal
instructions, and remembering an order of instructions. The comprehension of language may be on factual-
specific information. The extent of difficulty will vary among individuals, but even those who have normal
intelligence, usually referred to as high- functioning, may have difficulty with comprehension of verbal
information. The child may be using echolaic speech to rehearse what is heard in order to process the
information, or as a strategy for appropriate learning.
Children with autism display differences in social interaction and often have difficulty establishing
relationships. They may have limited social interactions or a harsh manner of interacting with others. The
difficulties they have with social communication should not be seen as a lack of interest or unwillingness to
interact with others; this lack of effective communication may result from an inability to collect social
information from the social interaction and use appropriate
communication skills to respond.
Understanding social situations typically requires language processing and non-verbal communication, which
are often areas of deficit for children with autism. They may not notice important social cues, and may miss
necessary information. People with autism typically have impairments in the use of non-verbal behaviors and
gestures to adjust in a social interaction and they may have difficulty reading the non-verbal behavior of
Children with autism are not able to understand the viewpoint of others, or understand that other people have
an outlook that could be different from their own. They may also have difficulty understanding their own—
and particularly other people’s beliefs, desires, intentions, comprehension and perceptions. Children with
autism often have problems understanding the connection between mental states and actions. For example,
children with autism may not be able to understand that another child is sad—even if that child is crying—
because they are not sad themselves.
Children with autism demonstrate these difficulties in many visible ways. They have a tendency to play with
toys and objects in unusual and stereotypical ways. Some may engage in excessive or inappropriate laughing
or giggling. Play that does occur often lacks the imaginative qualities of social play. Some children with
autism may play near others, but do not share and take turns, while others may withdraw entirely from
The quality and extent of social interaction occurs on a range. Social interaction can be classified into three
• Aloof - those who show no observable interest or concern in interacting with other people except for
assistance with basic personal needs; they may become agitated when in close proximity to others and may
reject unwelcome physical or social contact.
• Passive - those who do not initiate social approaches, but will accept initiations from others.
• Active but different - those who will approach for social interaction but do so in an unusual and often
It should be noted that people with autism do not necessarily fall into one specific area on the range.
People with autism often display unusual and unique behaviors, including:
• Restricted range of interests, and an obsession with one particular interest or object.
• Inflexible persistence to an unreasonable routine.
• Stereotypic and repetitive motor mannerisms, such as hand flapping, finger flicking, rocking, spinning,
walking on tiptoes, spinning objects.
• Preoccupation with parts of objects.
• Fascination with movement, such as the spinning of a fan, or turning wheels on toys.
• Insistence on sameness and resistance to change.
Many of the odd and stereotypical behaviors associated with autism may be caused by other factors, such
as a hyper-sensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory stimulation, difficulties in understanding social situations,
difficulties with changes in routine, and anxiety. It may not be possible to eliminate all repetitive behaviors.
Children with autism have a psycho-educational profile that is different from normally developing individuals.
Studies show that there may be deficits in many cognitive functions, yet not all are affected. In addition,
there may be deficits in intricate abilities, yet the uncomplicated abilities in the same area may be complete.
Current research identifies the following cognitive features associated with autism:
• Deficits in paying attention to appropriate signals and information, and in focusing on multiple cues.
• Receptive and expressive language impairments, particularly the use of language to express pretend
reasoning and ideas.
• Impairment in social cognition, including deficits in the capacity to share attention and emotion with others,
and to understand the feelings of others.
• Inability to plan, organize, and solve problems.
Some children with autism have stronger abilities in the areas of rote memory (focuses on memorization)
and visual-spatial tasks (thinks in pictures) than they have in other areas. They may actually excel at visual-
spatial tasks, such as putting puzzles together, and perform well at spatial, perceptual (gaining awareness or
understanding of sensory information), and matching tasks. Some may be able to recall simple information,
but have difficulty recalling more detailed information.
It has been suggested that some people with autism can more easily learn and remember information that is
presented in a visual design and that they may have problems learning about things that cannot be thought
about in pictures. Many children with autism have a visual image for everything they hear and read, they
think in pictures.
Some children with autism may have difficulty comprehending oral and written information for example,
following directions or understanding what they read. Yet some higher-functioning individuals may be quite
capable of identifying words, applying phonetic skills, and knowing word meanings. Some children may
display strength in certain features of speech and language, such as sound production (phonology),
vocabulary, and simple grammatical structures yet have significant difficulty carrying on a conversation and
using speech for social and interactive purposes (pragmatics). A child who is high-functioning may perform
numerical calculations relatively easily, but be unable to solve mathematical problems.
People with autism often exhibit unusual patterns of attention. Children can have a range of difficulties in this
area. These have major inferences for effective communication, social development, and achievement of
academic skills. Children with autism often have difficulty paying attention to important cues or information
in their environment and may focus their attention only on a limited part of the environment, to the
elimination of what is significant. For example, a child may look at the ball but not at the person to whom
the ball is to be thrown. Or a child may notice the unrelated details such as the staple in the corner of a
paper, but not the information on the paper. This is referred to as stimulus over selectivity.
Another feature of autism is impairment in the capacity to share attention between two things or people,
which is referred to as joint attention. Children may also have difficulty separating and shifting attention
from one stimulus to the next, which may contribute to the characteristic inflexibility and resistance to
change. They may also demonstrate a short attention span.
Odd Responses to Sensory Stimuli
Children with autism usually differ from others in their sensory experiences. Responses to sensory
stimulation may range from hyposensitivity to hypersensitivity. In some cases, one or more of the person’s
senses are either under-reactive (hyporeactive) or over-reactive (hyperreactive). Environmental stimuli may
be disturbing or even painful to someone with autism.
The tactile system includes the skin and the brain. Information can be gathered by the skin through touch,
temperature, and pressure. This information is interpreted by the person as pain, neutral information, or
pleasure. The tactile system allows us to perceive and respond appropriately to our environment and have
the appropriate reaction for survival. We pull away from something that is too hot and might harm
us. We respond with pleasure to the warmth and pressure of a hug.
When children with autism are affected in the tactile system, they may withdraw when touched. This is
called tactile defensive. They may overreact to the texture of objects, clothing, or food. The inappropriate
response is the result of the person’s tactile misunderstands, which can lead to behavioral problems,
irritability, or withdrawal and isolation. Although some sources of stimulation may be undesirable, other
types and/or quantity of stimulation may have a calming effect.
Children with autism may be hyposensitive or hypersensitive to sounds. Parents and teachers report that
seemingly harmless sounds can cause extreme responses in some children with autism. This can be
particularly problematic in a school setting, which normally includes so many different sounds. The pushing
of a chair, bells between classes, intercom announcements and sounds of machinery fill a normal school
day. Such sounds seem unbearably intense to a child with autism.
Visual and Sense of Smell
Different responses to sensory stimuli may also be apparent in a child’s reaction to visual information and
smells. Some children may react to odors such as perfumes and deodorants. Others may use smell to seek
out information about the surroundings in ways that we do not ordinarily expect. Some children with autism
cover their eyes to avoid the effect of certain lighting, or in response to reflections or shiny objects, while
others seek out shiny things and look at them for extended periods of time.
The inner ear contains structures that detect movement and changes in position. This is how people can tell
that their heads are upright, even with closed eyes. Children with autism may have differences in this
orienting system so that they are fearful of movement and have trouble adjusting themselves on stairs or
ramps. They may seem strangely fearful or clumsy. The opposite is also true. Children may actively seek
intense movement that upsets the vestibular system, such as whirling, spinning, or other movements that
others cannot tolerate. Through information received from muscles and other body parts, people
automatically know how to move or adjust positions efficiently and evenly. Children who have problems
organizing the body’s information have odd posture and may appear clumsy or sloppy.
Anxiety is not identified in the DSM-IV criteria. However, many children with autism, as well as their
parents and teachers, identify anxiety as a characteristic associated with autism. This anxiety may be related
to a variety of sources, including:
• Inability to express oneself.
• Difficulties with processing sensory information.
• Fearing some causes of sensory stimulation.
• Need for predictability, and having difficulty with change.
• Difficulty understanding social expectations.
• Fearing situations because they are not understood.