Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are neurological disorders that are characterised by difficulties with social communication, with social interaction, and with social imagination and flexible thinking.
Because ASD is a combination of these three characteristics it is sometimes referred to as a triad of impairments. It has also been referred to as a tripartite cluster of atypical patterns of communication, of behaviour, and of flexible thinking.
An additional impairment, related to processing sensory information, has been suggested as a further dimension of ASD.
The three characteristics will have overlapping features. Atypical patterns of social communication can be verbal and non-verbal. Verbal difficulties may include a delay in the development of language, comprehension difficulties, literal thinking and speech, poorly modulated intonation and delivery of speech, echolalia (echoing speech), unusual vocabulary, and repetitive use of language.
Non-verbal difficulties include difficulty in empathising with others and in appropriately interpreting social cues, body language and facial expressions. Gestures are often stiff, stilted or over-exaggerated.
This video clip illustrated features of social communication difficulties
Problems with social behaviour will sometimes arise from communication and restrictive behaviours - for example, difficulties in interpreting facial expression. Also, as pupils with ASD tend to be literal thinkers, they will have problems with knowing the rules that govern social behaviour.
This video clip illustrates features of impairments in social interaction
In relation to a lack of flexibility of thinking and behaviour, one may notice that the child has limited social imagination, becomes anxious with changes in routine, prefers restricted and/or repetitive activities and routines, and is obsessional with a narrow range of interests. These difficulties can also be reflected in problems with imaginative play and with sharing the attention with others.
Therefore, difficulty with participating in the activities or enjoyment of others is a particular challenge to teachers as it affects the student’s ability to share and have varied interests, adapt behaviour according to the situation, accept changes in rules and routines, accept others’ points of view, and generalise learning.
This video clip illustrated features of social imagination and flexible thinking
The combination of these three features may result in a range of further behavioural difficulties. Students with ASDs, for example, may engage in hand flapping, rocking or spinning. They may demonstrate heightened sensitivities to noise, smell, taste, touch or visual stimuli. They may also experience erratic sleep patterns, display unusual eating habits, engage in self-injurious or aggressive or hyperactive behaviour, exhibit an unusual posture or gait, and have irrational fears or phobias.
Since the 1980s the idea has emerged of a spectrum which acknowledges the impact of both the range of general learning disability and level of ASDs for the student’s learning and teaching programmes.
For information on strategies which will address this range of difficulties, see the section on 'Strategies for Teaching and Learning'.
Asperger’s syndrome is thought to fall within the spectrum of autism - with the same triad of characteristics - but also with enough distinct features to warrant its own label.
Click here for further information on Asperger’s syndrome