Understanding the Autism Spectrum

Autism is a lifelong and complex neurodevelopmental disorder. It is a 'spectrum condition' in that there are a broad range of both strengths and difficulties that people on the autism spectrum may experience - and to widely varying degrees. Common areas of strength include being:

  1. Highly logical
  2. Persistent, hard working and details orientated
  3. Extremely loyal and truthful

Areas of difficulty for individuals on the spectrum will normally be manifested in four main areas:

  1. Social skills and interactions: Individuals with autism often find it difficult to understand others' perspective (mentally and emotionally), or to understand the 'unwritten rules' of social interaction e.g., turn taking, bending the rules of play etc.
  2. Verbal and non-verbal communication: Common difficulties include interpreting a 'series' of instructions, literal interpretation of instructions (e.g., 'Hop to it', 'Don't move', 'Let's toast the bride!') and difficulties with interpreting non-verbal communication, such as making eye contact, reading gestures and understanding facial expressions, often accompanied by a narrow repertoire of activities and interests.
  3. Behavioural: Unusual, rigid or repetitive behaviours and/or a restricted repertoire of activities and interests are very common. An individual with autism might repeat certain words or actions over and over, always group objects in a certain way or have a particular (often unusual) topic of interest they will try and steer every conversation to.
  4. Sensory Issues: Many students on the spectrum will face significant challenges in the tertiary environment due to sensory issues. This is frequently experienced as an extreme sensitivity to sensory stimuli (sound, touch, smell for example) and can have a profound effect on a student’s behaviour. The short video produced by the National Autistic Society provides an excellent example of what it is like for a child to live with these sensitivities. This type of experience frequently remains through adulthood.

Explore other common characteristics of autism

Some other common characteristics of Autism include:

  • Outstanding skills in certain areas
  • Reduced (or no) emotional expression
  • Repetitive and stereotyped behaviour (e.g., flapping arms, rocking, head nodding)
  • Difficulty coping with change and transition - coupled with a strong desire to do certain things the same way or to keep things exactly the same
  • Poor motor skills (may manifest in an usual gait, or uncoordinated movement)
  • Unusual or challenging behaviours in response to confusion, anxiety and stress
  • Difficulty with executive functioning (e.g. reasoning, planning, time-management)
  • Difficulty making conversation
  • Being awkward and ill at ease in a social situation

A person on the spectrum might display many of these behaviours, or just a few. These behaviours can also range from quite severe in intensity to very mild.

It is important to know that some of the behaviours that indicate Autism might be seen in typically developing children. The significant difference in Autism relates to the pattern, intensity and persistence of the behaviour beyond the normal developmental time-frame.

Fast Facts

  • Current research indicates that an estimated one in 100 people has autism, with prevalence rates being higher in males then females.
  • There is no single known cause for autism, however, research has identified a strong genetic link. Autism is not caused by an individual’s upbringing or their social circumstances.
  • 55-60% of people with autism will have an intellectual disability, however 40 to 45 per cent do not.
  • People on the autism spectrum who have no intellectual disability are referred to as ‘high-functioning’.
  • The majority of higher education students with high-functioning autism might have a diagnosis of ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’, which is generally associated with intellectual and language skills in the normal (to superior) range.

Professor Tony Attwood discusses the characteristics of behaviours that may be seen in individuals on the Autism spectrum.