What Does Autism Look Like?

This section describes autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in greater detail. The term “spectrum” can be defined as a continuous sequence or range (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, n.d.). As such, parents, caregivers, and educators will recognize the wide range of strengths and challenges children with ASD exhibit.

Social Communication Impairments may include the following:

  • The child may display poor or fleeting eye contact. This is often one of the earliest signs of ASD, as is a lack of responding to one’s name.
  • The child may exhibit difficulty initiating or maintaining a conversation. Or, conversations may focus on a preferred topic of interest. Individuals with ASD may have difficulty understanding when to start or stop a conversation.
  • Language that seems “scripted” or echoed from television, a movie, or previous interaction. Many educators and caregivers report children with ASD engaging in “movie talk” or “TV talk” which refers to the child verbally repeating scenes from a television show or preferred movie.
  • The child may lack empathy. For example, the child may be unable to recognize when another person is distressed because of a broken toy or dropped ice cream on the floor.
  • The child may have difficulty understanding nonverbal communication (e.g., eye-rolling suggesting negative response or thumbs-up as a sign of agreement). The child may not understand cues of yawning or looking away as a lack of interest in the topic of conversation.
  • The child may have challenges understanding verbal communication (e.g., extensive instructions for an assignment). Although a child may be able to communicate using language and understand basic requests, excessive language during instructions or questions may result in confusion or distress.
  • Some children have an aversive response to a hug, handshake, or pat on the back. The response may be as simple as pulling away from the hug or as distressing as self-injury.
  • The child may have a preference to remain alone at home or during recess at school. It is not unusual for students with ASD to sit in the corner of the playground alone or under a play structure.
  • The child may demonstrate the inability to participate in pretend play (e.g., not able take on a “character” or use a bowl as a hat).
  • The child may be unable to use language to communicate (uses communication device or picture communication).

Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities include:

  • The child may exhibit strong interests in a specific topic or toy. Children with autism have been known to have extreme interests, such as memorizing train schedules or dates in history, or categorizing all aspects of aquatic life. They may have extremely well-developed memory skills and be able to easily recall things that occurred many years ago. Many children gravitate to numbers, letters, and colors in their play and communication with others. Some children become fixated on videos such as Thomas the Tank Engine, watching segments of the movie over and over.
  • The child may have extremely rigid ideas about time, travel, daily routines, feeding, dressing routines, and placement of objects at home and in the classroom.
  • Probably one of the most obvious symptoms of ASD includes the atypical body movements that are sometimes associated with this disorder. Although not always indicative of ASD, these symptoms are often the first things people notice in terms of unusual behavior. For instance, some children really enjoy spinning their bodies in circles for much longer than their peers could sustain. Other children engage in full or partial body rocking, and may position their bodies in unusual ways. Children will sometimes run in ritualized patterns on the playground or in the home. They may walk on their toes or flap their hands. At times, they may flick their fingers or cross them in unusual ways.
  • The child may experience sensory challenges, and will be either over- or under-sensitive to temperature, texture, smell, or sound. It is not uncommon for the child to refuse to wear specific types of clothing or sleep on sheets that are not made of a specific material.
  • The child often engages in unusual play-based behaviors. She will line up her toys, categorize them, or place them in various positions that cannot be altered. Some children enjoy watching objects fall, and will repetitively drop objects such as balls, water, sand, etc. Other children enjoy spinning items, and will spin toys, plates, forks, lids, or other things that are not meant to be spun.
  • The child may visually examine his toys or objects in their environments. He may peer at objects out of the corner of his eye, but also may place them directly in his field of vision, moving them in and out of that field. Often, a child will flip over a toy car and flick the wheels while watching them spin, or lie on the floor and watch the wheels move as he pushes the car.

Many parents, caregivers, and educators report that children with ASD exhibit behavioral challenges such as tantrum behavior, aggressive behavior, self-injurious behavior, property destruction, and noncompliance. Challenging behaviors should be addressed promptly at home and at school.

Recognizing behavioral strengths of children with ASD is equally important, as it is those strengths that can be expanded to increase adaptive behavior. Just like neurotypical children, those with ASD have a wide range of talents. A child with ASD may be able to play a song on the piano without sheet music, but will avoid interaction with peers. At school, that child’s piano-playing skills may be incorporated in the classroom to help increase communication with peers. For example, a teacher could make a game of “name that tune,” encourage turn-taking at the piano, have the child teach peers about the piano, etc. Teachers could also make use of the vast knowledge a student with ASD may have on a particular topic. For example, if a student is fixated on train routes, a teacher could have that student develop a presentation with peers regarding specific routes, draw a wall-size map of routes, and incorporate routes in lesson plans regarding transportation, communities, or history. These activities are often beneficial to the student with ASD and his or her peers!