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The Characteristics and Challenges of Autism

Updated on May 13, 2013
Autism awareness ribbon
Autism awareness ribbon | Source

Communication Difficulties

Autism creates problems with verbal and non-verbal communication. Speech and vocabulary maybe very limited and even if a person has good speech and language skills they may struggle to understand the use of speech socially; for example how to start and maintain conversations may be hard. Even a young child may have a very formal and adult like use of language. This can lead to people believing they are more capable than they really are and a lack of understanding of other difficulties the child may have. Someone with autism may find it easy to talk at length about a subject they are interested in and show a vast knowledge but the back and forth nature of a conversation may be hard to understand and follow when they wish to tell all about their subject. Autism can also cause problems in using and understanding;

  • eye contact
  • idioms
  • tone of voice
  • sarcasm
  • body language
  • facial expressions
  • hand gestures

Terms, phrases and instructions may be taken in a very literal way so it helpful to always state clearly what you mean to avoid any confusion and mistakes.

Echolalia is often seen in those with autism and causes them to echo back either what a person has just said or words and phrases they have heard previously rather than giving an appropriate response. For people who find it difficult to speak or have very limited language skills or vocabulary there are alternative methods that can be used to communicate including sign language and symbol and picture communication systems such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System).

Sign language can be used to ease communication for those with autism who have limited or no language or speech skills. This photo shows the British sign language alphabet.
Sign language can be used to ease communication for those with autism who have limited or no language or speech skills. This photo shows the British sign language alphabet. | Source

Socialising and Routine

It can be very difficult for someone with autism to recognise other people’s emotions and feelings. Poor theory of mind can also cause them to be unaware that other people think and feel differently to themselves. Socialising is not something that they learn naturally and will need to be practiced and learnt instead. Even then some aspects may remain a mystery. Many of the unwritten rules of socialising will not be picked up by someone with autism which may make other people feel uncomfortable when around them and their differences stand out more. For example; a person with autism may stand too close to others or continue to talk about a chosen subject without realising that the other people present are not as interested as they are or would like a turn to speak. They may prefer to spend time alone or with a few select people who they are most familiar with.

Autism can make it very hard to understand why other people behave the way they do and to predict what they may do or what will happen next in a given situation. Not being able to differentiate between what will happen and what ‘could’ happen can be a source of great anxiety for someone with autism and cause them to be nervous of social situations and people or to avoid them when they can. Because of this they may prefer very ridged and controlled activities or to repeat the same things that they are familiar with over and over.

To counteract the seemingly chaotic nature of everyday life people with autism can often prefer to have fixed daily routines so that they can feel more secure knowing what will happen to them. This can consist of some tasks in life such as the school day or after school and bedtime routine or can be more elaborate and detailed to include every aspect of the day including what food they will eat and who they will see. Changes can be very difficult to deal with especially if they are unexpected. Visual timetables can be a useful strategy for mapping out routines or even writing on a normal calendar for an older child or adult so they can see what is going to happen and also look ahead to other days and know what to expect.

Children with autism may prefer repetitive and structured activities.
Children with autism may prefer repetitive and structured activities. | Source

Sensory Sensitivity and Special interests

People with autism may experience some type of sensory sensitivity. They may be hypersensitive (over sensitive) or hyposensitive (under sensitive) to sight, smell, touch or taste. Seemingly small things such as clothing labels, background electrical noises and food textures can be unbearable for someone sensitive to them. Hyposensitivity may cause people not to feel pain or changes in temperature in the same way other people do.

Special and intense interests can be a big feature of autism. These are sometimes called obsessions and can provide great comfort to someone with autism. Special interest can start at a young and may remain with a child or change over time. Some people go on to study or work within their special interest. These interests can be fun and stimulating to people as well as offering a sense of stability and familiarity. They can also be used as motivational aids especially for children in learning other skills or to help encourage or discourage certain behaviours.

Useful Books

It can get better: Dealing with Common Behaviour Problems in Young Autistic Children. A Guide for Parents and Carers – Paul Dickinson and Liz Hannah

The ASD Workbook: Understanding your Autism Spectrum Disorder –Penny Kershaw

Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers Syndrome – Luke Jackson

Autism and Asperger Syndrome (The Facts) - Simon Baron-Cohen

101 Games and Activities for Children With Autism, Asperger's and Sensory Processing Disorders - Tara Delaney

Helpful Websites

The National Autistic Society - Aims to provide individuals with autism and their families with help, support and accessible services.

Contact a Family – Uk wide charity providing information, advice and support to parents of disabled children as well as a way to get it touch with other families who are going through the same experiences.

Research Autism – A Uk charity that research into interventions for autism.

© 2013 Claire


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    • Elderberry Arts profile image

      Claire 7 weeks ago from Surrey, Uk

      I am glad that you found it useful. I totally understand. Other people are often more challenging that having autism.

    • Sunshyne1975 profile image

      SUNSHYNE 7 weeks ago from California, US

      Thank you for this hub. My sister has hypersensitivity. It can be frustrating to people around her because they don't understand.

    • Elderberry Arts profile image

      Claire 3 years ago from Surrey, Uk

      Thank you. Happy that it helped. The more awareness we can get out there, the better.

    • How to - Answers profile image

      L M Reid 3 years ago from Ireland

      Very informative article on autism. I too have ASD - Aspergers - so like to see more information out there to help others understand

    • Elderberry Arts profile image

      Claire 3 years ago from Surrey, Uk

      You are very welcome, glad my hub was a help. It is a great job you do.

    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna Sanguinetti 3 years ago from Perth UK

      Great Hub - very succinct useful information. I am an SEN teacher! Thanks.

    • Elderberry Arts profile image

      Claire 5 years ago from Surrey, Uk

      Thank you :)

    • Sonya-Artis profile image

      Sonya Artis 5 years ago from Kansas City, MO/Ft. Lauderdale, FL

      Excellent hub! Very imformative. I use to work in Special Education and I had a couple of beautiful boys that were autistic in my class. A lot of the information here was right on point about their personalities. Voted up.


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