What is autistic spectrum disorder?

Autism is a developmental disorder of social communication. It is usually diagnosed by specialised pediatricians and psychologists after careful assessment. The core difficulties enabling a diagnosis of autism to be made are often referred to as the 'triad of impairments.'  

These are:

  1. an impairment of social interaction
  2. an impairment of social communication
  3. an impairment of flexibility of thinking and play skills          

This is often accompanied by a limited, narrow or repetitive pattern of activities or specialist areas of interest.

Autism can affect individuals across the whole range of abilities. The basic impairments are always there but they can occur in different degrees of severity. Each child also has their own individual personality, so the presentation of children differs widely. To reflect this the use of the term ‘autistic spectrum disorder’ (ASD) is considered to be more useful as each child is unique.

Key Features

  1. Impairment of social interaction
    This can range from aloofness and complete indifference to other people to a child who is able to interact socially, but in a stilted or formal way. 
    It is unusual for a child with an autistic spectrum disorder to develop a true reciprocal friendship. 
  2. Impairment of social communication
    Some children with autistic spectrum disorder never use speech to communicate. At the other end of the spectrum children can have age appropriate vocabularies and the ability to use grammatically correct language. However, understanding of spoken language may be weak and these children may have difficulties using language in social conversation. They can speak at length on a favourite topic, but tend to talk at people rather than with them. 
    They are unable to “turn take” in conversation and they find it difficult to answer open questions.  It is usually very difficult for these children to read body language or facial expression and so they may be unaware of the listener’s needs. 
  3. Impairment of flexibility of thinking and play skills
    Young children with an autistic spectrum disorder may not play with toys appropriately or wish to share play with others. They may become fixed on part of a toy e.g. the wheels. Some children appear to produce complex play sequences but these are often copied from stories seen on television. They are always the same and the child resists an alteration in the pattern.
    Children with an autistic spectrum disorder often have a preference for sameness and routine and may become upset if this is changed. They may develop rituals or repetitive patterns of behaviour.          

A personal perspective (for a person with an autistic spectrum disorder):

  • the autistic way of thinking is different
  • often, children with an ASD do not understand that other people have feelings and needs
  • they do not choose to be sociable
  • school life is very sociable and education is delivered mostly verbally

Pupils with autism are expected to conform to this even though they are unable to fully understand it and generally think visually. With understanding and support they can do well in this 'alien' system. If their difficulties are not understood they can become very anxious and distressed. They generally will communicate these feelings behaviorally.

In general, it helps if teachers can show tolerance, acceptance, understanding and a willingness to learn.

It helps if teachers can understand:

  • an autistic individuals differences whether it may be the noises that they make or the hard time they have with language
  • that they will not be able to make this child non-autistic
  • the need to keep open lines of communication with the parents as this is crucial to the child’s overall development at home and at school
  • the usefulness of being a cautious observer. Watch not only for what the child is attracted to in motor responses (such as the continual flushing of the toilet) but also for what bothers the child
  • encourage the autistic child to use his kinaesthetic senses
  • music and rhythmic activities are highly recommended - non-verbal autistic children can sometimes sing words that they are unable to speak
  • maintain a stable, ordered, secure environment. The autistic child simply cannot function if there are too many daily changes
  • autism is likened to an internal human “normality” with the volume turned up


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Last updated: 29 January 2019 16:52:11

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