What exactly is autism or ASD (autism spectrum disorder)? What are the most common traits associated with autism?
Signs and symptoms related to Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD vary between individuals but there are some traits that are more common and prevalent across those with the condition. We’ll go over the most common characteristics of autism and share real examples of what these might look like for children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
What is Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorder is sometimes referred to as ‘autism’ or ‘ASD.’ Autism is officially defined by the characteristics that are identified in what is known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). More specifically, the DSM-5, which is the fifth edition of the DSM, lists the common traits associated with autism.
The DSM is a tool that is used by medical and clinical professionals, especially in the United States, to diagnose and communicate about mental and behavioral health disorders or diagnoses including ASD (Regier, Kuhl, & Kupfer, 2013). Anyone who has a diagnosis of autism will have some traits or behaviors that are associated with each characteristic found in the DSM-5 description of ASD.
Common Characteristics of Autism
Let’s discuss some of the most common traits associated with autism. Although every person is different and every individual will experience traits of autism in their own way, there are some common characteristics across everyone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder.
There are two main categories of traits that are characteristic of individuals with autism. These include the following (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):
- Differences in the areas of social communication and social interaction
- Display of restricted or repetitive behavior, interests, or activities
These characteristics are skill deficits, meaning that the individual is either delayed or hasn’t developed certain abilities, or they are simply different abilities or behaviors as compared to people without autism.
Social Communication and Social Interaction
Common traits that might be present in a child or even an adult with autism include things like difficulty communicating with others, differences in how the person reads, interprets, and responds to nonverbal communication and cues, and challenges related to making and maintaining relationships. Next, we’ll explore these common traits of ASD a bit more closely.
One common trait of individuals with ASD related to social-emotional reciprocity is difficulty starting or maintaining a conversation. It might be hard for the child (or adult) with autism to walk up to another person and start talking to them. They might not like talking that much and prefer to keep to themselves. On the other hand, some people with autism might overshare and might not know when to let the other person have a turn to talk.
People with autism might also struggle to share what they are thinking or feeling with other people. This could be due to various reasons. They might have a hard time expressing themselves verbally or they may prefer keeping their thoughts to themselves; but sometimes they might want to share their experiences with others but aren’t sure how to do it in an effective way. It could be hard for those with autism to label and talk about their emotions and get the right words out when they are trying to explain something.
Another common sign of autism is the hesitancy to initiate social interactions. A child or adult with autism might feel uncomfortable approaching another person. This discomfort could stem from not knowing what to do with their body, where to look or what to say. This reaction could also present itself when someone else approaches them.
Communication researcher, Albert Mehrabian developed the 7-38-55 Rule about the nature of communication. Based on his theory, effective communication is made of 7% verbal words, 38% tone of voice, and 55% nonverbal communication (Mehrabian, 1967). Individuals with autism commonly experience difficulties with nonverbal communication.
Children and adults with autism might find it uncomfortable to make eye contact with other people and struggle with knowing what to do with their body when around other people. They might not realize how their body language gets interpreted by other people and might struggle reading another person’s body language. For example, a child with autism might not realize that when they put their head down on their desk in school that the teacher might interpret this as them not listening to the lecture even if they are listening. Another example of a way that autism might contribute to challenges with body language and nonverbal communication is when a person with autism sees another person walk by, smile, and wave, but they don’t respond to that nonverbal expression. Many people would smile and wave back as a response to the social behavior expressed by the other person (if it’s in an appropriate situation and manner, of course).
On the other hand, even if the person with autism understands these typical social exchanges, they may prefer not to or just naturally don’t engage in them the way other people do. For instance, even when they are enjoying themselves in a group situation with friends, they may not smile or laugh as much as their friends even though they are having a good time. Of course, this isn’t true for all children with autism as some children laugh and smile often even when other people aren’t.
Developing and Maintaining Relationships
Difficulties related to developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships and another common trait shared by children and adults with autism.
People with autism might find it difficult to change their behavior based on the social setting they are in. This might look like a child who doesn’t change his tone of voice when he is in the library or inside his home and, instead, he uses his “outside voice” and is very loud and expresses himself energetically.
It is also common for many people with autism to have a limited number of friends. For those with a large social circle, they still might have some difficulties in those relationships, and might need to find ways to feel comfortable and interact with their friends in a way that suits their needs and interests. You might notice that a young child with ASD doesn’t share their toys with other kids as often as the other children do. Or you might see a child with ASD keeping to themselves in class because they struggle with initiating social interactions or maintaining friendships and they find it hard to be in a group setting.
Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors
A common trait in people with autism is what is called restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Sometimes this is shortened into the phrase restricted and repetitive behaviors or RRBs. Sometimes you’ll hear the term stereotypy or stereotypic behaviors which falls under this category of behaviors as well.
Stereotyped or Repetitive Motor Movements, Use of Objects, or Speech
Some examples of RRBs that you might notice in kids and adults with autism is repetitive movements. This could be rocking back and forth or flapping their arms or pacing around the room. It is common for someone with autism to use objects in a very specific way or even in a repetitive manner. For instance, they might make a really long line of a certain type of object such as toy cars, flash cards, or blocks. They also might focus in on a specific part of an object, such as spinning the wheel and watch it move for extended periods of time.
RRBs can also be present in the way someone talks. They might repeat what someone else says word-for-word. This is called echolalia. This could be when a child repeats a question back to the person who asked them the question. If the child’s mother asks, “Do you want some juice?” a child with echolalia might respond “juice.” Another example of echolalia is when a child repeats what they hear on TV or in a video.
Insistence on Sameness, Routines, or Ritualized Patterns of Behavior
Almost everyone is a creature of habit in some aspects of their lives. Routine brings on a sense of stability for most but for those on the autism spectrum can get uncomfortable or even upset about small changes that happen in their daily routine or from what they expected to happen. They might feel more comfortable than others doing the same activities every day and doing things the same way. For instance, they might get upset if someone else takes their seat, the seat they usually sit in, at the table or on the school bus. Picky eating habits can also be a symptom of ASD. A child may have a few foods he or she eats, and they expect these foods every day.
Individuals with autism might also find it challenging or stressful to transition from one activity to another or from one setting to another. You might see this in a child who has a hard time leaving his house and getting into the car when he is told to do this by his parents. You might also see this when someone is focused on something they are interested in, such as watching a video about space - if that’s a strong interest of theirs, and they struggle to stop that activity and move on to something else.
Highly Restricted, Fixated Interests
Another characteristic of autism is having very strong interests. This means that the person has one or a few topics that they are extremely interested in. They might struggle with entertaining other topics or engaging in conversations with other people about things that are not related to their own interests.
People with autism might have specific sensory related behaviors, such as excessive smelling or touching of objects or having a visual fascination with lights or certain sounds. It is also a common trait for those on the spectrum to have hyper-reactivity or hypo-reactivity to sensory experiences.
Hyperreactivity means that they might be overly sensitive to sensory stimulation. In this case, the person might feel that lights are too bright, or noises are too loud, for example. This is in comparison to how most other people experience these things.
Hyporeactivity means that they might be under-sensitive to sensory stimulation. In this case, the person might not sense pain or cold temperatures as well as other people do. They might want to feel more movement which may result in excessive and repetitive motor movements, such as rocking or flapping their arms.
To summarize, the most common traits of autism include behaviors related to social communication and interaction, such as difficulties with social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communication, and developing and maintaining relationships.
Additionally, people with autism often display restricted or repetitive behavior, interests, or activities, such as engaging in repetitive motor movements, preferring routines, having fixated interests, and being hyporeactive or hyperreactive to sensory input.
Children, and adults, with autism spectrum disorder are amazing human beings who sometimes have difficulties in the areas of social experiences and communication with others. They also have specific behaviors that help them to regulate their sensory experiences. They may display behaviors that are different than most other people, and some of those differences may cause stress for them in their everyday lives. However, with the right supports and guidance to create a life that works for them, they can thrive and live toward their own personal potential in their everyday lives.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
Mehrabian A, Ferris SR. Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. J Consult Psychol. 1967;31(3):248–252. https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0024648
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Regier, D. A., Kuhl, E. A., & Kupfer, D. J. (2013). The DSM-5: Classification and criteria changes. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 12(2), 92–98. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20050
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