What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Boy and girl

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a pervasive developmental condition, which is characterised by deficits in the following two areas:

  • Impaired communication and social interaction
  • Restricted interests and repetitive behaviours

Many individuals with autism experience sensory differences and difficulties. They may be under-sensitive or over-sensitive to any of the five senses.

The word 'spectrum' is used because no two people with Autism Spectrum Disorder are exactly alike. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability and most people with autism will require varying degrees of support throughout their lifetime.

"To know one child with Autism is to know one child with Autism" - Anon.
Each child will vary in the combination and severity of the behaviours he/she displays and so may seem quite different even when compared to siblings with autism. The term 'high functioning' is not a diagnostic term; rather, it is often used to describe someone who has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder but is not as severely affected in their autism and cognition.

1. Social Relationships

The child may:

  • be aloof - e.g. stand on the sidelines
  • avoid interaction with, and be disinterested in, peers and adults
  • not tolerate other children playing alongside him/her
  • want to join in but not know how - e.g. social rules, entering play or a conversation, invading others' personal space
  • be unable to read the social cues of others - e.g. facial expressions, gestures

2. Communication

The child may:

  • be non-verbal
  • have little facial expression or use inappropriate gestures
  • take an adult by the hand to the desired object
  • have limited speech - e.g. single words, disordered speech/language
  • have a limited range of topics of conversation - e.g. only talk about the 'here and now', or about topics that are familiar to him/her (e.g. trains)
  • have difficulty reading the body language of others, especially facial expressions and emotions
  • have difficulty reading non-verbal cues or prompts - e.g. pointing
  • take language literally - e.g. idioms such as 'Pull your socks up'

3. Behaviour

The child may:

  • be resistant to change - e.g. find it hard to cope with changes in everyday routines
  • have certain rituals - e.g. fixating on a certain object before hanging their bag on the hook
  • develop obsessions with objects, places or subjects - e.g. trains from the 'Thomas and Friends' series
  • develop unusual fears - e.g. being afraid of walking past wall heaters
  • have sensory overload with unusual body actions - e.g. flapping hands, covering ears, toe walking
  • have an excellent rote memory

4. Play/Imagination

The child may:

  • use objects/toys for sensory stimulation only - e.g. lining up, spinning, flicking, throwing
  • play with toys in the same way over and over
  • have limited skills for imaginative play
  • have difficulty inventing his/her own imaginary world
  • play alone much of the time

5. Cognition

  • The child may have significant cognitive impairment. Alternatively, cognition may be within average range with a marked pattern of 'splinter' skills - e.g. a 3 year-old child may be unable to use language to request, decline or comment, but be able read at the level of a 6 year-old.

6. Sensory Processing

The child may be hypo-sensitive (too little) or hypersensitive (too much) to:

  • pain - e.g. a small graze on the arm may cause excessive reactions, while a fractured arm may induce no response
  • sounds or particular frequencies - e.g. supermarkets may be too loud for the child to cope with; however, the child may not react to high-pitched noises such as sirens and whistling kettles
  • light - e.g. bright lights versus darkness
  • touch - e.g. deep pressure versus light pressure
  • taste and/or texture of foods
  • types of smells
  • gait and posture may be odd
  • gross motor movements may be clumsy