Characteristics of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
As we look at some of the most commonly observed characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorders, remember these important points. Some children on the spectrum are very severely affected in most or all domains of functioning, while others are only mildly affected. There is considerable overlap of the conditions along the spectrum, meaning that children with different diagnoses may share many characteristics. On the other hand, two children with the same diagnosis may be affected in markedly different ways. “There is no single behavior that is always typical of autism and no behavior that would automatically exclude an individual child from a diagnosis of autism” (National Research Council, 2001, p. 11).
Impaired Social Relationships
Many children with ASD have difficulty perceiving the emotional state of others, expressing emotions, and forming attachments and relationships. Parents often report that their attempts to cuddle and show affection to the child are met with a profound lack of interest on the child’s part. The child seems not to know or care whether he is alone or in the company of others.
Many children with ASD fail to exhibit social gestures such as showing and pointing things out to others or waving and nodding their head at others. Although some children with ASD “demonstrate basic gestures such as pulling, pushing, or leading others by the hand to get things they want, the use of these gestures typically lacks any social component; the child seems to be using the adult just as a means to an end” (Professional Development in Autism Center, 2004).
Deficits in joint attention are very common in children with ASD (Stahl & Pry, 2002). Joint attention refers to such behaviors as looking where someone else is looking, as when a baby notices that his mother has turned her head to look at something and does the same, or when the baby turns its head or eyes in the direction that someone is pointing. Joint attention allows the young child and another person to interact with the same frame of reference, an important factor in the development of language and social skills.
Communication and Language Deficits
About half of children with autistic disorder are mute; they do not speak, but they may hum or occasionally utter simple sounds. The speech of those who do talk may consist largely of echolalia—verbatim repetitions of what people around them have said—and non-contextual speech phrases without any apparent communicative purpose. For example, Murphy (2003) reported that throughout the day a 7-year-old boy with autism repeated phrases he had heard from movies, cartoons, television shows, announcers of sporting events, and teachers during math instruction such as the following:
“Hermione, we need to go find Harry!”
“Angelica, help me!”
“Today’s Noggin show was brought to you by your good friends at McDonald’s.”
“Jeff Gordon rounds the far outside turn!”
“Add five carry the one.”
Some children with ASD have acquired an impressive vocabulary but do not use it in appropriate or useful ways.
A common characteristic of children with autism is the concrete or literal processing of verbal information. Straightforward cause-and-effect relationships and questions that have a definite answer are more easily understood than abstract concepts or idiomatic expressions. For example, “the concept of using an umbrella to stay dry in the rain is very concrete and easy for a child with autism to understand, whereas an idiomatic figure of speech such as ‘it’s raining cats and dogs,’ may prove incomprehensible to a child with autism” (Professional Development in Autism Center, 2004).
One of the most common deficits of children with autism is their lack of understanding of the social meanings of language. Michelle Anderson provides the following example:
Many children with ASD can learn to request and label items, but understanding the subtleties of humor is often something that remains confusing into adulthood. That’s why we were so excited one day when Sammy came up with a new response to an old question. Sammy had been taught to answer the question “What is your mommy’s name?” Then one day in December he surprised us all when instead of answering “Chris Hall,” he looked right at us with a serious face and responded, “Chris—mis.” Three seconds later he started cracking up and saying, “Mommy is Christmas!” “Mommy is Christmas!” We all laughed along with him; and since then, he has come up with many more jokes to delight everyone around him. (personal communication, 2004)
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