Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders (commonly referred to as Autism) describes a group of developmental disabilities which includes:

  • Autistic disorder (sometimes called infantile autism or childhood autism)
  • Asperger’s disorder
  • Atypical autism

The word ‘spectrum’ is used to describe the fact that no two people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder behave the same presentation of characteristics.

People with ‘Autism Spectrum Disorders’ display a range of possible characteristics and behaviours across three main areas of social interaction, communication and behaviour.

The characteristics that can be associated with autistic conditions are engagement in repetitive activities, stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines and unusual response to sensory experiences. They may also experience sensory sensitivities, i.e. over- or under-sensitivity to sight, touch, taste, smell, sound, temperature or pain.

Autism Spectrum Disorders are lifelong disabilities that usually appear during the first three years of life.

The causes of Autism Spectrum Disorders are still unknown, though recent research has indicated that there may be a genetic factor for many people, while for others it may be a result of damage or abnormal development in the brain and parts of the central nervous system before, during or soon after birth.

People with an Autism Spectrum Disorder may have difficulties with social interaction and communication. For some individuals this is the result of not being able to process information or understand the meaning of body language or the spoken/written word.


A person with Autism Spectrum Disorder may:

  • Be frustrated when dealing with everyday challenges and the unknown.
  • Be confused, anxious and vulnerable to depression.
  • Have limited social skills and as a result have difficulty making friends.
  • Have difficulty understanding things with multiple names or labels.
  • Have delayed speech with repetition or abnormal patterns.
  • Require assistance when dealing with conflict.
  • Have limited use and understanding of body language and as a result will not be able to show their own expressions, maintain eye contact or interpret other people’s feelings and emotions.
  • Have difficulty with starting or sustaining conversations.
  • May display restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours.
  • Have excellent skills for rote learning but have difficulty processing the information.
  • Have sensitivities to sound, smell, sight, taste, pain and temperature.
  • May display self-injurious behaviour.

Communication Strategies

  • When communicating with a person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder it is important to acknowledge that each person is an individual and should be approached as such.
  • Meet in a setting that is comfortable and does not cause anxiety or distraction. The less peripheral distractions both visual and auditory the better
  • Recognise that verbal communication is difficult and provide guidelines for appropriate communication (i.e. one person to speak and the other to listen).
  • Use simple and short sentence structures that avoid ‘colourful expressions’ and figures of speech.
  • Avoid language that is ambiguous (has a double meaning) or that may be interpreted literally (i.e. “Raining cats and dogs”).
  • Use words that are flexible i.e. “we will usually” or “we may” rather than “we will”.
  • Provide information in a logical order to avoid confusion.
  • Avoid the use of humour and be aware that a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder may find something funny that others would consider inappropriate.
  • Be aware that body language may not be understood.
  • Introduce new ideas gradually and avoid conflict situations or topics if practical.
  • Use a series of closed questions rather than open questions as they are often too hard to answer because there are so many possible answers.
  • Keep to a routine that the person is familiar with.
  • Recognise sensitivities and difficulties in understanding the information being discussed.
  • Provide regular breaks and reduce the amount of information or decisions to be made at one time.

Written Communication Strategies

  • Write down the information that needs to be communicated.
  • Reduce the amount of information on a page.
  • Use diagrams and pictures where appropriate.
  • Identify sensitivity to particular colours.
  • Use checklists to break down tasks and to assist with learning new skills.
  • Encourage diary use to avoid confusion and assist with personal organisation.