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Characteristics of autism


People with autism have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal language. 

People with autism may experience challenges in interpreting:

  • Facial expressions or tone of voice
  • Gestures
  • Jokes and sarcasm
  • Common phrases and sayings (For example, 'Pull your socks up' is taken literally instead of its intended meaning of 'improve your performance'.)

Some people with autism may have limited speech or be completely non-verbal. Alternative communication techniques, such as sign language or visual symbols, may be a preferred option.

Others will have verbal communication skills, but may need some time to process what has been communicated. At times, they may repeat what the person has just said; this is known as 'echolalia'. A person with autism may also talk at length about their interests and may not recognise the turn taking nature of conversations or when the other person becomes disinterested.

A person with autism may:

  • Have limited or no speech and/or experience challenges decoding or expressing communicative gestures (e.g. non-verbal gestures)
  • Use speech but exhibit non-verbal behaviours when confused or stressed
  • Speak in whole sentences but struggle to participate in or maintain a two-way conversation
  • Lead an adult by the hand to a desired item rather than ask
  • Repeat sounds or particular questions
  • Have a varied vocal quality when compared to others (tone, pitch, speed of speaking)
  • Reverse pronouns (e.g. saying "you" instead of "I")
  • Find consistently following verbal directions challenging
  • Show a literal and concrete comprehension of language

Social Interaction

People with autism generally find socialisation confronting. They are often unable to identify, express or understand emotions, which can make interaction and 'fitting in' difficult.

A person with autism may experience the following social behaviours:

  • Appearing to be insensitive, because they haven't been able to detect someone else's spoken or unspoken feelings
  • Difficulty with sharing with peers or turn taking
  • Challenges differentiating between familiar and unfamiliar people
  • Preferring to be alone rather than actively seeking out the company of other people
  • Finding it difficult to seek comfort from others when needed
  • Feeling emotions such as anxiety or traits of low self-esteem
  • Challenges in expressing their feelings, emotions or needs, which may lead to self-harming or harmful behaviours
  • Being unintentionally aggressive in an attempt to be social
  • Challenges with following those unwritten social rules (e.g. standing close to another person when social convention would call for more personal space, or engaging in conversation that may be deemed inappropriate for the audience or social context)

Social Imagination

Social imagination allows us to understand and predict the behaviour of other people. It also helps us to make sense of abstract ideas and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine. People with autism tend to follow routines rigidly and favour predictability.

Those who experience challenges with social imagination may find it difficult to:

  • Interpret and determine other people's thoughts, feelings and actions
  • Identify hazards
  • Foresee what will or might occur next from a particular action
  • Engage in imaginative play and activities—though some may enjoy some imaginative play but have a strong preference to act out familiar scenes
  • Prepare for change and plan for the future
  • Approach new or unfamiliar situations, and manage the stress they experience in these situations
  • Appreciate other people may not be interested in their topic of interest or obsession
  • Attempt a task if they feel they are unable to complete it to a standard of 'perfection'

Difficulties with social imagination should not be mistaken for a lack of imagination. Many people with autism are very creative and go on to become accomplished artists, musicians or writers.

Sensory Processing

People with autism may struggle to process information that comes to them through their senses. Even though the sensory organs themselves are working correctly, the information is not processed in the typical manner in the brain.

A sensory information processing challenge may look like:

  • Sensitivity to surrounding environments and a challenge in categorising stimuli from relevant to irrelevant
  • A varying capacity and capabilities to respond to stimulus on different days
  • Ignoring some sounds but feeling hypersensitive to others
  • Playing with, seeking out or reacting selectively to particular sounds
  • Actively avoiding eye contact, and using peripheral vision rather than central vision (giving the appearance of not giving eye contact or looking)
  • Focusing intently on small visual details of walls, furniture, objects, prints, pictures or body parts, while not seeing the whole picture
  • Displaying an intense interest in light or in shiny reflective surfaces (e.g. may be absorbed by filtered light through fingers, stare at lights or reflections in glasses, watch water going down the plughole)
  • Seeking out vibrations
  • Chewing or eating things that are not food—smelling or mouthing objects, people and surfaces as a way to explore the world
  • Eating preferences (or challenges) that could be related to the smell, texture or flavour of food
  • Demonstrating high thresholds to pain
  • An inability to feel extremes of temperature
  • Partaking in repetitive movements to stimulate sensation, to help with balance and posture, or to deal with stress (such as rocking, bouncing, flapping arms and hands, or spinning intensely)
  • Difficulty identifying where their body is in space and planning motor movements, or moving hands or body in unusual (often rigid) postures
  • Walking on tiptoes
  • Experiencing sleep disturbances or disturbed sleep patterns
  • Having difficulty taking to toilet training

At AEIOU Foundation, we support children in our centres by using strategies and practices that are shown to be effective through research. As a result, we assist children and their sensory needs as part of our program.

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