What does autism look like?

Article at a Glance

  • Autism is a neurological disorder that has gained increased attention over the last decade.
  • Because autism is a spectrum disorder no two children share identical symptoms or severity.
  • Learning to recognize and support children on the spectrum can help them feel more comfortable.

When the photographer finished lining up all 33 boys for the cross country team picture, she pointed to my son, Joshua, and listed a litany of commands. “Sit up straight, shoulders back, now relax a little, but keep your legs crossed, don’t move, stop squinting. Wait, can you relax your smile?”

Her frustration rose as Joshua had trouble meeting her demands. He tried to position his body as best he could, but I could see that his anxiety was mounting. From his perspective, the routine of practice had been disrupted to distribute uniforms and bags and to take photos. Schedule changes are always hard for Joshua. He was trying to cope with the changes in practice, but as his mom, I recognized anxiety in his stiff posture and the tightness in his face. I wanted to tell the photographer that it was okay, he didn’t have to look perfect for the picture. I was thrilled he was cooperating at all, considering how difficult this situation was because of his autism.

Joshua does not look like he has a disability, but his autism makes everyday social moments like this challenging. Most of the time I don’t get a chance to explain his complex neurological disorder. And when I do, that explanation always seems to come during a crisis, meltdown, or in a few rushed moments. Very rarely do I feel those interactions allow for an accurate understanding of how autism looks.

Autism is a neurological disorder that has gained increased exposure and attention over the last decade. As of 2012, the CDC reports that 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). While some increased awareness of the condition has helped create more understanding, stereotypes and misconceptions abound. To complicate matters, no child with ASD looks exactly like another. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, some children with ASD may not have the same behavioral, emotional, or communication challenges as their ASD peers. But there are common traits shared by most children on the spectrum. Understanding the core symptoms and daily hurdles of ASD can help everyone recognize, embrace, and interact better with everyone on the spectrum. In turn, this can help children with ASD feel more comfortable, safe, and accepted.

While there are many nuances and characteristics to autism here are three areas that can trigger recognizable behaviors.

1. Social Struggles

Children on the spectrum often struggle in varying degrees with social interaction, making it difficult for these kids to participate fully in games, conversations, and group activities. Being aware of the social struggles ASD children face can help us understand and meet these kids at a place that might be easier for them to reach.

Dr. Kevin Nelson of Payson

Insistence on Rules: ASD children rely heavily on structure and predictability, and social rules or norms help them navigate activities and interactions. If ASD children see someone break the rules of a given social interaction or activity, they could become distressed. This distress might manifest as calling out the rule breaker or having a meltdown. Understanding this reliance on structure can help us be more understanding when a child exhibits “rude” behavior in response to rulebreaking or a change in how the group is playing a familiar game.

Eye contact: Most of us feel uncomfortable if we are talking to someone and they do not reciprocate eye contact. We view a lack of eye contact as a sign of inattention or disrespect. But many children with ASD find it difficult to make or maintain eye contact. This lack of eye contact does not mean the same thing to a person with ASD. Often, they are engaging with you or your conversation in other ways that are less threatening to them.

Reactions to emotional responses: Something as simple as knowing when to laugh during a movie or what to say when someone is crying can be difficult for ASD children to navigate. He or she may laugh at inappropriate moments or seem to fail to recognize or empathize with another’s pain. These behaviors are not meant to be rude responses. ASD kids can often identify another person’s emotions but just don’t understand how to respond to them appropriately.

Turn-taking: We often perceive a child that struggles to wait their turn as selfish or impulsive. Turn-taking can be difficult for children with ASD because it requires processing multiple social cues simultaneously: reading gestures, waiting, and sharing.

Waiting: Because they are highly sensitive to their environment (sensory issues often registers as threats) and impulsivity often results from anxiety, waiting for a slice of birthday cake can be distressing for ASD children. What appears to be a “bad behavior meltdown” may just be the result of anxiety and overstimulation.

2. Communication Challenges

Communication is vital to social interaction, and because children on the spectrum often struggle with communication, their struggles with social interaction are amplified. Some kids with ASD are completely non-verbal, and others may struggle to answer simple questions. Others may talk incessantly. Following a conversation might be difficult for some children, while others may want to dominate it. Here are some ways to help better communicate with ASD children.

Verbal vs. Non-Verbal: Language processing is often difficult for children on the spectrum no matter how their speech proficiency appears. Many ASD children rely on pictures or written language to help them understand communication better. If you are struggling to communicate with an ASD child, try using pictures or written language to let one or both of you get your message across.

Following Conversations: Many ASD children struggle with oral language and auditory processing, meaning they might have a hard time “hearing” you or remembering your entire message. Be patient, speak clearly and break down your message into parts a child will be able to remember. Some ASD children have difficulty following multi-step directions, so giving him or her one or two steps at a time will help them succeed.

Difficulty understanding jokes, slang, idioms, figurative language, and cultural phrases: Because these phrases carry implied meanings, ASD children can become confused. ASD children interpret language literally and often don’t understand humor or the underlying meaning of idioms. If a child is struggling to understand you, try using less nuanced language or explain your meaning in concrete terms.

Echolalia and idiosyncratic phrases: Language use by ASD children often includes atypical phrases and speech patterns. Echolalia is the repetition of words and phrases. These words and phrases may have no semantic value or meaning. Some children on the spectrum repeat “comfort phrases” such as lines from movies or books and integrate these phrases into their speech. Idiosyncratic language can include phrases with a specific meaning only the child or people close to the child understand. Parents may have to explain or “translate” these phrases to others.

3. Sensory Sensitivity

Each of us takes the information collected from our five senses to help make a picture of what the world around us looks like, and we all have differing levels of sensitivity to that stimulation. One person in a room will feel the temperature is too cold while another feels it is just right. Some people like the taste of cilantro and others think it tastes like soap. Someone with color blindness may interpret a scene differently than someone else. Children with ASD can seek out or avoid certain sensory experiences because of the way their brain interprets that information. Often, they perceive these stimuli more acutely. Knowing this helps us understand some of the behaviors an ASD child exhibits and can help us provide a less threatening sensory environment.

Clothing sensitivity: Some people with ASD are extremely sensitive to the fibers, seams or tags in clothing. Some children may even try to remove clothing or insist on wearing the same “safe” shirt every day. Be aware of clothing preferences and avoid scratchy fabrics like wool. Remove tags from shirts if they are bothersome. Clothing sensitivity can also cause problems at special events when we often force new and uncomfortable clothing on kids. Try to be flexible. You may need to make accommodations.

Sensitivity to light: Some kids are highly sensitive to the light cycles in fluorescent lights and process those cycles like a flashing strobe. They may shut their eyes to block out the light (sensory aversion) or become distressed. Using natural light or traditional bulbs may help alleviate this sensitivity.

Sound sensitivity: Loud music, voices, and alarms can be very distressing for children with ASD. They might cry out or try to block the stimulation by rocking, humming, or placing their hands over their ears. You might have noticed a child at a concert or the grocery store wearing sound cancellation headphones. These are all ways ASD kids may try to cope with the auditory sensory overload.

Because the kids on Joshua’s cross country team were familiar with Joshua and his autism, they were able to help him through the picture-taking process. When the photographer gave commands that were confusing to Joshua, his teammates whispered to him what to do or helped show him how to sit. They helped keep stay calm through the process, and he came out of the experience with more confidence in handling his anxiety. Sometimes Joshua’s teammates aren’t always sure of what to do when he gets stressed or confused, but their willingness to try helps Joshua feel important and included.

Even with increased knowledge and awareness of the neurological disorder, it may feel awkward to interact with a child with ASD, especially since every child is unique. Just remember this: we are all of us is trying to experience and interact with the world in the way we best know how.

Sarah Beck and family

About the writer:
Sarah Beck lives in Fargo, ND, and is a writer, blogger, wife, and mom of two great kids: an 11-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son who has autism.

You can read about her autism-meets-middle school adventures and the challenges, victories, and learning curves that happen along the way at thisautismlife.com.

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