Autism affects the way individuals perceive the world and makes communication and social interaction difficult. Individuals with ASD may also have repetitive behaviours or intense interests. Characteristics, and their severity, are different for each of the primary affected areas: Communication, Social Interaction, and Repetitive Behaviours. The information following— about the social characteristics, communication disorders and repetitive behaviours associated with autism—is taken from the National Institute of Mental Health website. We copied it with some minor editing from the Autism Speaks 100 Day Kit.

Social Characteristics

  • They may seem indifferent to other people, and prefer being alone. They may resist attention or passively accept hugs and cuddling. Later, they may fail to seek comfort or respond to parents’ displays of anger or affection in a typical way. Research has suggested that although children with autism are attached to their parents, their expression of this attachment is unusual and difficult to “read.”
  • Children with autism also are slower in learning to interpret what others are thinking and feeling. Subtle social cues such as a smile, a wave, or a grimace-may have little meaning to a child with autism. To a child who misses these cues, “Come here” may always mean the same thing, whether the speaker is smiling and extending her arms for a hug or frowning and planting her fists on her hips. Without the ability to interpret gestures and facial expressions, the social world may seem bewildering.
  • To compound the problem, people with autism may have difficulty seeing things from another person’s perspective. Most five year olds understand that other people have different thoughts, feelings, and goals than they have. A child with autism may lack such understanding. This inability leaves them unable to predict or understand other people’s actions.
  • It is common for people with autism to have difficulty regulating their own emotions. They may have a tendency to “lose control,” particularly when they’re in a strange or overwhelming environment, or when angry or frustrated. At times, they may break things, attack others or hurt themselves. In their frustration, some bang their heads, pull their hair or bite their arms.

Communication Difficulties

  • Some people with autism remain non-verbal throughout their lives, although the majority develop spoken language and all can eventually learn to communicate in some alternative way.
  • Without meaningful gestures or the language to ask for things, people with autism are less able to let others know what they need. As a result, they may simply scream or grab what they want. Until they are taught better ways to express their needs, children with autism do whatever they can to get through to others. It is important that children learn some method of expressing their needs and some may learn to use alternative communication systems such as pictures or sign language.
  • Children with autism who do speak often use language in unusual ways. They seem unable to combine words into meaningful sentences. Some speak only single words, while others repeat the same phrase over and over. They may repeat or “parrot” what they hear, a condition called echolalia. Although many children with autism go through a stage where they repeat what they hear, it normally passes by the time they are three.
  • Some children with autism who are only mildly affected may exhibit slight delays in language, or even seem to have precocious language and unusually large vocabularies, but have great difficulty in starting, or stopping a conversation, or staying on topic. The “give and take” of normal conversations may be hard, although they may often carry on a monologue on a favourite subject, giving others little opportunity to comment.
  • Another common difficulty is the inability to understand body language, tone of voice, or “phrases of speech.” For example, someone with autism might interpret a sarcastic expression such as “Oh, that’s just great” as meaning it really IS great.
  • While it can be challenging for others to understand what children with autism are able to say, their body language may also be difficult to understand. Facial expressions, movements, and gestures may not match what they are saying. Also, their tone of voice may fail to reflect their feelings. They may use a high-pitched, sing-song, or flat, robot-like voice. Some children with relatively good language skills speak like little adults, failing to pick up on the “kid-speak” that is common in their peers.

Repetitive Behaviours

  • Although children with autism usually appear physically normal, odd repetitive motions may set them apart from other children. These behaviours might be extreme and highly apparent or more subtle. Some children like spinning or moving objects or lining up their toys in a certain way, rather than using them for pretend play.
  • Many children with autism need, and demand, absolute consistency in their environment. A slight change in routines, such as mealtimes, dressing, taking a bath, and going to school at a certain time or by the same route, can be extremely stressful.
  • Repetitive behaviour sometimes takes the form of a persistent, intense preoccupation. These strong interests may be unusual because of their content (e.g. being interested in fans or toilets) or because of the intensity of the interest (e.g. knowing much more detailed information about Thomas the Tank Engine than peers). For example, a child with autism might be obsessed with learning all about vacuum cleaners, train schedules, weather patterns, or lighthouses. Often older children with autism have a great interest in numbers/letters, symbols, dates, or science topics.