4 Common Aspects of Autism

What is autism? For just three words, that’s a really big and important question. Because an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a medical condition, it would take a long time to fully explain it. That’s why this article will only try to help you understand some of the basic aspects of autism.

A Simple Explanation

Autism is basically defined by deficits in social and communication skills, as well as unusual or repetitive behaviors. It is a neurological disorder; not a mental illness. It’s a lifelong condition; not a childhood condition. It impacts people of all socio-economic demographics. You cannot visually tell if someone has autism.

For a not-so-simple explanation, read our article What is Autism?

Common Aspects of Autism

We don’t like to make generalizations about autism, because every individual is different and spectrum disorders range from mild to severe. However, here are four common aspects of this condition you should be familiar with: (1) Visual Learning and Thinking, (2) Theory of Mind, (3) Social Referencing, and (4) Behavior is Communication.

1. Visual Learning and Thinking

A somewhat common trait of individuals with autism is visual thinking and learning. For young children and students, visual information tends to be more impactful than verbal instruction.

If you write a social story for your child, it can help teach a new skill. The story can contain the same statements you would say, so the information can be absorbed at a preferred pace and referred back to as needed. If you include pictures in the written story, those images can provide another level of visual strategizing that can help your child learn a skill.

The concept of visual learning is the idea behind visual strategies used at schools and ABA Centers. The use of iPads and similar devices to help people communicate with pictures and symbols, rather than verbally, is also a result of this concept.

An example of providing visual cues, for a young child, is to post on the bathroom door a list, with pictures, of the steps the child needs to take to prepare for bedtime:

  • Put toys in toy box
  • Wash face
  • Brush teeth
  • Remove clothes
  • Place clothes in laundry hamper
  • Put on pajamas
  • Choose book to read

Another example of applying the visual learning concept to everyday living, for teenagers or adults, is creating a chart of pictures about how to do laundry:

  • Sort clothes into piles
  • Set dials on washer to these positions
  • Transfer clothes from washer to dryer
  • Set dials on dryer to these positions
  • Fold dry clothes
  • Put folded laundry into these dresser drawers

These types of visual reminders are really no different than making a grocery list before you go to the supermarket. We recently mentioned this in our article Visual Supports Help Kids Communicate and Learn, which discusses visual systems, rituals, and schedules, and using visual aids to teach social skills.

You can learn a lot more about the visual learning and thinking aspect of autism by studying the life and work of Temple Grandin, Ph.D. Dr. Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who also happens to have autism. She is known around the world for both her revolutionary work as a consultant to the humane livestock handling industry and her insightful work about the latest science of autism.

You can discover more about Temple Grandin, plus several other fascinating and inspirational people on the spectrum, by reading our article Successful, Well-Known Adults on the Autism Spectrum

2. Theory of Mind

The Theory of Mind concept pertains to how people are able to understand that each person sees the world from their own unique perspective. We normally have the ability to comprehend that another person might have a different point of view than our own.

Individuals with autism frequently have difficulty seeing things from another person’s point of view. A person on the spectrum may have a weaker sense of Theory of Mind than someone who is not on the spectrum.

Children on the spectrum might persistently talk about a particular topic, such as an interest in trains or dolls. Those prolonged conversations indicate a lack of understanding that other people may not be as interested in that topic. They struggle with the idea that not everyone feels the same way they do.

If parents recognize this trait in their child early in the process of dealing with autism, they can help their child develop this skill by reminding the child, “I can’t read your mind. You can’t read my mind.” If you ask your child, “What color am I thinking of?” the child will likely guess the wrong color. When you reveal the color you were actually thinking about, the child will begin to grasp the concept that other people are thinking different things. Repeated exercises like this should eventually help your child understand that each person thinks and feels differently than every other person.

For more information on this topic, provided by the Autism Research Institute, read Understanding Autism: Theory of Mind.

3. Social Referencing

Social referencing is when a developing child looks for clues in the facial expressions of others, especially parents, to determine how to respond to different situations. It plays an important role in the early development of communication and language skills. Children with autism frequently have a limited ability to use social referencing or they entirely lack the ability to reference the social cues of others.

Infants typically begin to use social referencing around the age of 6-months. Infants and toddlers will look to parents and siblings to see their reactions to sudden stimulation or unfolding events. If a parent reacts to a situation by smiling, then the child will likely respond to that cue by smiling back. If a parent is horrified or shocked by something, then the child is much more likely to get upset or cry.

For a heartwarming and encouraging story about a child on the spectrum who eventually began to use social referencing, read A portrait of spring… trajectory and hope.

4. Behavior is Communication

If your child is not communicating verbally, that doesn’t mean your child is not communicating. Behavior is a potent form of communication. We naturally recognize the behavior as communication in infants, but as children typically grow older and gain a command of language skills, we tend to forget that concept.

You shouldn’t let yourself become discouraged if your child is not communicating verbally because your child is communicating through behavior. It’s up to you to decipher those communications in the same manner you would for a newborn infant.

As an alternative strategy, your child might be able to communicate more effectively by using a visual support system. Many parents of a child with non-verbal autism teach their child to use sign language. Assistive technology can also help a child who knows the alphabet communicate through typing.

Beyond the Basics: A Parent’s Perspective

It’s cliché to state that children with autism will teach you more than you’ll teach them, but oft-repeated sayings become cliché because they’re true.

Autism does not have to define your child or you or your family.

Autism is a hurdle—or a series of hurdles. It’s something to learn about; to work around if you can; to deal with if you can. It can initially be overwhelming, but the more you learn about it, work around it, and deal with it, the easier it becomes to successfully negotiate and clear the hurdles.

Try different strategies and therapies until you find the ones that work best for everyone concerned. Be persistent. Be patient.

A key goal of many of our programs is to prepare children with autism to grow up to be independent adults. Reaching that goal will be more or less likely in some cases compared to others. Encourage your child to be as independent as possible, because that will eliminate many of the hurdles that autism presents.

It’s important to learn that your child can do things without your participation. You may not be able teach your child how to play a musical instrument, but the right music teacher might be able to accomplish that. You don’t always need to be the person teaching and coaching your child, because there is a community of people willing to help.

When you and your child recognize that parents are not the only source of support, you both take a huge step toward independence. After all, none of us is completely independent. We all depend on other members within our community to successfully navigate life. We are all interdependent.

If you and your community can help your child gain as many skills as possible and as much confidence as possible, then you won’t always need to be available to take care of every need and solve every problem. An important skill your child needs to learn—like everyone else—is how to ask for help.

Part of the overwhelming aspect of raising a child on the spectrum is your concern about the future. It’s natural to worry about what your child’s life will be like as an adult. It’s difficult to know what to realistically hope for regarding your child’s future, which can be a bit scary.

If you’re raising a child on the spectrum and you’re overwhelmed or concerned about the future, please contact us. We want to help you, your child, and your family.


Mary Roth, Lead Autism AllyThanks to Mary Roth, Autism Society of Indiana Lead Autism Ally, for her contribution to this article. If you have any questions, please contact her at mary@inautism.org or by calling 800-609-8449 ext. 22.

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