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Characteristics of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Intellectual Functioning

Children with autism spectrum disorders span the entire range of IQ. A diagnosis of autism can be made in a child with severe or profound mental retardation as well as in a child who is intellectually gifted. Although autism spectrum disorders occur across the full range of intellectual abilities, between 70% and 80% of individuals with autistic disorder also have mental retardation (Romanczyk, Weinter, Lockshin, & Ekdahl, 1999). The terms low-functioning autism and high-functioning autism are sometimes used to differentiate individuals with and without mental retardation.

Uneven skill development is a common characteristic of autism, and about 10% to 15% of children exhibit “splinter skills”—areas of relatively superior performance that are unexpected compared to other domains of functioning. For example, a child may draw very well or remember things that were said a week before but have no functional language and will not make eye contact with others.

A very few persons are autistic savants, people with extraordinary ability in an area such as memorization, mathematical calculations, or musical ability while functioning at the mental retardation level in all other areas (Kelly, Macaruso, & Sokol, 1997; Treffert, 1989). The betting calculations by Raymond in the movie Rain Man are illustrative of savant syndrome.

Many children with autism exhibit overselectivity, the tendency to focus on a minute feature of an object or a person rather than the whole. For example, if shown a guitar for the first time, a child might focus on the sound hole and not consider anything else about the instrument, such as its size, shape, other parts, or even the sound that it makes. This overselectivity interferes with the child’s understanding of what a guitar is—the totality of its parts and function. The tendency to overselect hinders his learning of new concepts and interferes with his ability to interpret relevant meaning from the environment.

Another tendency often seen in individuals with autism spectrum disorder is obsessive attention on a specific object or activity. This focused attention may last for a long time if uninterrupted and is often very difficult to break. For instance, if a child with autism has focused his attention on trains, he may continually choose to play with trains and resist playing with other toys. Focused attention may impede his ability to shift attention to other people or activities, such as a parent who is entering the room or another child who is attempting to join his play.

Some children with autism possess a strong aptitude for rote memory for certain things. For example, a child with autism may be able to name all of the Cy Young Award winners in the major leagues and repeat the script of an entire video verbatim. Yet the same child may have difficulty recalling what he did during recess or remembering the sound that the letter k makes.

Unusual Responsiveness to Sensory Stimuli

Many children with autism react to sensory stimulation in atypical ways. This takes the form of over- and underresponsiveness to sensory stimulation. An overresponsive (hypersensitive) individual may not be able to stand certain sounds, dislike being touched or the feel of certain textures, and refuse to eat foods with certain smells or tastes. In her autobiography, Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports of My Life with Autism, Temple Grandin (1995) describes how overly sensitive skin and certain sounds bothered her as a child.

Washing my hair and dressing to go to church were two things I hated as a child. . . . Scratchy petticoats were like sandpaper scraping away at raw nerve endings. . . . loud noises were also a problem, often feeling like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve. They actually caused pain. I was scared to death of balloons popping because the sound was like an explosion in my ear. Minor noises that most people can tune out drove me to distraction. . . . My ears are like microphones picking up all sounds with equal intensity.

An underresponsive (hyposensitive) child appears oblivious to sensory stimulation to which most people react. Some children with autism do not seem to feel pain in a normal way. Some underresponsive children will spin round and round, rock back and forth, or rub and push things hard into their skin to create additional forms or higher intensities of stimulation. It is not uncommon for an individual with autism to display a combination of both over- and underresponsiveness—for example, being hypersensitive to tactile stimulation but unresponsive to many sounds.

We may move directly in front of the child, smile, and talk to him, yet he will act as if no one is there. We may not feel that the child is avoiding or ignoring us, but rather that he simply does not seem to see or hear. . . . As we get to know the child better, we become aware of the great variability in this obliviousness to stimulation. For example, although the child may give no visible reaction to a loud noise, such as a clapping of hands directly behind his ears, he may orient to the crinkle of a candy wrapper or respond fearfully to a distant and barely audible siren. (Lovaas & Newsom, 1976, p. 308)

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