3 Main Groups
Three main areas of difficulty
The characteristics of autism do vary from person to person but they are generally divided into three main groups. These are:
- difficulty with social communication
- difficulty with social interaction
- difficulty with social imagination.
Difficulty with social communication
“For people with autistic spectrum disorders, ‘body language’ can appear just as foreign as if people were speaking ancient Greek”
People with autism have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal language. Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. They can find it difficult to use or understand:
- facial expressions or tone of voice
- jokes and sarcasm
- common phrases and sayings; such as the phrase ‘It’s cool’, which people often say when they think that something is good, but really means that it’s a bit chilly.
Some people with autism may not speak, or have fairly limited speech. They will usually understand what other people say to them, but prefer to use alternative means of communication themselves, such as sign language or visual symbols.
Others will have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the give-and-take nature of conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said (this is known as echolalia) or talking at length about their own interests.
It helps if other people speak in a clear, consistent way and give people with autism time to process what has been said to them.
Difficulty with social interaction
“Socialising doesn’t come naturally – we have to learn it”
People with autism often have difficulty recognising or understanding other people’s emotions and feelings, and expressing their own, which can make it more difficult for them to fit in socially. They may:
- not understand the unwritten social rules which most of us pick up without thinking: they may stand too close to another person for example, or start an inappropriate subject of conversation
- appear to be insensitive because they have not recognised how someone else is feeling
- prefer to spend time alone rather than seeking out the company of other people
- not seek comfort from other people
- appear to behave ‘strangely’ or inappropriately, as it is not always easy for them to express feelings, emotions or needs.
Difficulties with social interaction can mean that people with autism find it hard to form friendships: some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about this.
Difficulty with social imagination
“We have trouble working out what other people know. We have more difficulty guessing what other people are thinking”
Social imagination allows us to understand and predict other people’s behaviour, make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine. Difficulties with social imagination mean that people with autism find it hard to:
- understand and interpret other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions
- predict what will happen next, or what could happen next
- understand the concept of danger, for example that running on to a busy road poses a threat to them
- engage in imaginative play and activities: children with autism may enjoy some imaginative play but prefer to act out the same scenes each time
- prepare for change and plan for the future
- cope in new or unfamiliar situations.
Difficulties with social imagination should not be confused with a lack of imagination. Many people with autism are very creative and may be, for example, accomplished artists, musicians or writers.