Autistic individuals process and interpret the world around them in different ways.
Autism characteristics fall into three areas:
- communication, social interaction and relationships
- understanding the world, thought processes and interests
- sensory processing
An individual can be autistic and have the same IQ level or higher IQ level compared with their peers.
Another autistic individual may have severe learning difficulties and require continuous support to keep themselves safe.
There is a real ‘spectrum’ of ability and needs experienced and every individual is very different.
Recent research suggests that autistic individuals often prefer the term ‘autistic’ rather than ‘person with autism’, identifying themselves as a person with specific characteristics, rather than having something that is additional to themselves.
Communication, social interaction and relationships
Autistic individuals may develop, process, use or understand communication and interaction, differently to their peers.
- Verbal and non-verbal communication
Some autistic individuals develop spoken language but may have difficulty using language in a functional way.
Some may not use any spoken language or may try to but have difficulty forming words.
Some individuals may not understand the meaning of spoken words, or only process and understand one word or the last word spoken to them. They may have difficulty understanding nonverbal cues such as gesture or facial expression.
Approximately 30% of autistic individuals do not use spoken language to communicate.
Each individual with autism will communicate and understand the communication around them differently.
It is important to support by making our communication clear, using a Total Communication approach – an approach whereby things in the environment such as objects and pictures, as well as gesture facial expression are used together to help further support the meaning of verbal language.
Learn more about supporting your communication here.
- Nature of a conversation.
Autistic individuals may have difficulty understanding the two–way process of a conversation and therefore may not respond if a person asks them a question. It could be that they talk at someone for long periods of time without pausing for the other person to talk.
It is important to support autistic individuals by explicitly teaching interaction and conversational skills. If they do not use verbal language, you can interact with them at their level of communication, perhaps taking turns in something they like to do such as clapping or tapping. Learn more about Intensive Interaction here.
- Literal understanding
Autistic individuals can potentially have a very literal understanding of language and what has been said. It can be difficult to work out if a word has multiple meanings. Jokes and sarcasm can, therefore, be even harder to work out when you take into consideration the potential misinterpretation of nonverbal communication, use of intonation, and facial expression. For example, someone saying “you can say that again” in a sarcastic way, maybe misinterpreted to the literal meaning and the individual may therefore literally, say it again!
It is important to support autistic individuals by making your communication clear and avoiding any language that may be confusing.
- Emotions and feelings
It can be very difficult for an autistic individual to understand their own emotions and consequently, what to do when they feel a certain way. For example, it could be difficult for a person to understand how to manage their emotion in a way that is viewed as ‘appropriate’ when they feel angry or upset.
Understanding other people’s emotions is therefore particularly difficult. It can also be challenging to understand that other people have different feelings to themselves or that other people are not aware of how they may be feeling.
It is important to support autistic individuals to learn about their emotions and how to help themselves as well as ask for help.
Learn more about how to help children learn regulating strategies here.
- Social rules
Unwritten social rules that can often be naturally understood and noticed by ‘neurotypical’ people, can at times be difficult for autistic individuals to identify or acknowledge. An example would be a child stood in the line at school and hits the child in front of him. This could be seen as ‘aggressive’ when actually the child wanted to get the other child’s attention, but does not know how to do this ‘appropriately’.
It is important therefore that social skills and social rules are specifically modeled and taught, in order to be learned and understood.
Thought patterns and interests
- Guessing what other people are thinking
Autistic individuals may find it difficult to understand the context or ‘bigger picture’ of a situation. They may also misinterpret that other people have different thoughts and feelings other than their own. This is often referred to as the ‘theory of mind’. This can therefore, lead to anxiety, from being unable to predict the intentions of others or what could happen next.
It is therefore important that we offer support through making situations predictable through the use of routine and structure in the day and prepare for any new situations or environments in advance.
Learn more about the use of visual and social stories to prepare for upcoming events here.
- Predicting what will or could happen next and changes outside of routine
Being able to think ahead, predict what will happen next and anticipate consequences of actions, can be challenging. Many autistic individuals therefore, like or feel comfortable with routines, as the familiarity enables them to know what will happen next. Deviating from this routine may cause a lot of anxiety.
Organisation and preparation in advance using communication methods that can be understood (i.e. a picture), can really support a person to understand the change or where they are going to go.
Learn more about the use of visual timetables to support transitions here.
- Understanding abstract concepts
Abstract concepts can be difficult to understand as they are not visible and cannot be experienced by our senses.
Abstract concepts such as time and danger, will need to be taught in a concrete and practical way with visual resources and practical activities.
- Engaging in imaginative play
Autistic children often develop play skills differently to their peers. It may be that they enjoy playing with the same toy over and over again or use a toy in a way that it is not intended for (e.g. lining up trains or changing a puzzle piece on the table).
It is very helpful to teach children how to play with toys and how to play with toys in an imaginative way. Putting aside time to do this on a regular basis can help a child to learn new play skills.
Learn more ideas for playing and interacting with an autistic child here.
We all process information through our senses very differently.
Some autistic individuals can have difficulty organising and making sense of sensory information, from different senses.
Some individuals may be highly sensitive to sensory input causing discomfort, confusion, loss of focus or withdrawal. In these situations, a child may understandably try to avoid certain sensory stimuli. This is known as hypersensitivity.
Some individuals may be under sensitive to sensory input and therefore may appear unresponsive, lacking energy or on the other hand, seek out specific sensory input, such as chewing or jumping, to stimulate themselves more. This is known as hyposensitivity.
Examples of hypersensitivity:
- Putting their fingers in their ears (hypersensitive to sound or pitch)
- Avoiding looking at things, covering their eyes or turning lights off (hypersensitive to light, colour or pattern)
- Refusing to eat certain foods (hypersensitive to taste or texture)
- Only wanting to wear certain clothing, avoiding touching specific materials, not wanting to have their hair brushed or cut (hypersensitive to touch or texture)
- Avoiding movement activities such as running and jumping (hypersensitive to balance and movement – vestibular sense)
- Avoiding or have difficulty climbing or ascending stairs (hypersensitive proprioceptive sense)
Examples of hyposensitivity:
- Repeatedly seeking out sensations, such as hugs or feeling specific textures (hyposensitive to touch)
- Not reacting to pain (hyposensitive tactile sense)
- Poor fine motor skills, like holding or writing (hyposensitive proprioceptive sense)
- Seeking large movements, such as jumping from heights or wanting to be picked up by their arms from the floor (hyposensitive vestibular sense)
- Chewing or smelling everything (hyposensitive tactile or smell senses)
- Appearing over forceful with touch or with toys (hyposensitive to touch)
Three case studies of autistic children:
Zachery is 8 years old. Zachery communicates by using single words and pointing. When asked, he can say the names of lots of different objects, as well as the names of familiar people. In familiar contexts, he can say sentences of up to 3 words, such as “I want egg”. If you ask him a question he is not familiar with, Zachery will not respond.
Zachery can read and write, but doesn’t choose to do so if given the choice. He will read out loud, but will find it difficult to answer a question about the story. He much prefers to spin items on a table or the floor. He also likes playing on a spaceship game on the computer, where he enjoys watching the same scene over and over again.
Zachery is fascinated by electrical equipment and likes to turn things on and off such as lights, fans and hand dryers and will do so if he sees one. Zachery is hypersensitive to sound and will at times hold his fingers in his ears.
Sean is 11 years old. He is non-verbal and communicates through vocalisations, single Makaton signs, photos and leading an adult to what he wants. Sean can sort colours and complete puzzles with 2 or 3 pieces. He really likes looking at photos and bouncing on a gym ball. Sean finds verbal language (words and sentences) confusing and he can get very frustrated if an adult speaks to him using a lot of words. When this happens, Sean may hit the closest person to him. It is best to communicate with Sean with single words, gesture and Makaton sign only. Sean seems very anxious if he doesn’t know what he is doing next or if he goes somewhere unfamiliar.
Sean is hyposensitive (under sensitive) to touch and therefore often seeks pressure around his body. He does this by pulling tables very close to him when sitting in a chair and he loves hugs.
Shania is 13 years old. She has an average IQ and her favourite subject is Egypt. Shania can talk for hours about Egypt. Someone can start a conversation with Shania and very quickly, she will start talking about Egypt. At school play times, Shania can often be seen walking up and down the playground by herself or talking to an adult.
Shania really likes routine. She writes her daily timetable down as a list and crosses each one off as she completes it. If Shania’s routine is suddenly changed, she can get very upset. In these circumstances, she can sometimes be at risk of harming herself by biting her arm. She will need a lot of time and space to calm down. At times, lying under a weighted blanket can help her calm down. Shania will only use the downstairs toilet at school. Her diet consists of mainly dry foods and she eats with the same knife and fork only.
Autistic individuals process the world very differently and various strategies can be put in place, in order for individuals to learn, understand, communicate and to be as independent as possible.