Call Us:
1300 273 435

Characteristics of autism


People with autism have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal language. Many have a very literal understanding of language and believe precisely what people say.

People with autism may experience difficulty with interpreting:

  • facial expressions or tone of voice
  • gestures
  • jokes and sarcasm
  • common phrases and sayings (For example, "Pull your socks up" is taken literally instead of its intended meaning of 'improve your performance'.)

Some people with autism may have only limited speech or be completely non-verbal. Alternative communication techniques, such as sign language or visual symbols may be a preferred option.

Others will have good communication skills, but may find it difficult to understand the turn taking nature of conversations. At times they may repeat what the person has just said; this is known as 'echolalia'. A person with autism may also talk at length about their interests and not notice when the other person does not appear interested. When speaking to a person with autism, it should be done in clear, consistent manner allowing time for processing.

A person with autism may demonstrate difficulty with communication with:

  • Limited or no speech and/or lack typical communicative gestures e.g. non-verbal gestures
  • Use speech but revert to non-verbal (which may be inappropriate) behaviours when confused or stressed
  • Speaking in whole sentences but be unable to  participate in or maintain a two way conversation
  • Leading an adult by the hand to a desired item rather than ask
  • Using repetitive sounds or repeat particular questions
  • Unusual vocal quality (tone, pitch, speed of speaking)
  • Reverse pronouns (will use "you" instead of "I", etc.)
  • Being unable to consistently follow verbal directions
  • Having a literal and concrete comprehension of language

Social Interaction

People with autism generally exhibit severe difficulties with socialisation. They are often unable to identify, express or understand emotions, which can make interaction and 'fitting in' difficult.

Typical social behaviours of a person with autism may include:

  • Difficulty with understanding unwritten social rules, for example, standing too close to another person or starting an inappropriate conversation
  • Appearing to be insensitive, because they are unable to detected how someone else is feeling
  • Inability to differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar people
  • Difficulty with turn taking or sharing with peers
  • Preferring to be alone rather than seek out the company of other people
  • Inability to seek comfort from others
  • Displaying traits of low self-esteem
  • Inability to express feelings, emotions or needs, which may result in inappropriate actions
  • Being unintentionally aggressive in an attempt to be social

Social Imagination

Social imagination allows us to understand and predict the behaviour of other people. It also helps us to make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine. People with autism follow routines rigidly and favour predictability.

Those who experience challenges with social imagination may find it difficult to:

  • Determine and interpret other people's thoughts, feelings and actions
  • Foresee what will or might occur next
  • Identify hazards
  • Engage in imaginative play and activities.  Children with autism may enjoy some imaginative play but have a strong preference to act out familiar scenes
  • Prepare for change and plan for the future
  • Cope in new or unfamiliar situations which may result in the person becoming stressed
  • Appreciate other people may not be interested in their topic of interest which they talk obsessively about
  • Attempt work if they feel they are unable to do it perfectly

 Difficulties with social imagination should not be mistaken for a lack of imagination. Many people with autism are very creative and go on to become accomplished artists, musicians or writers.

Sensory Processing

People with autism may have difficulty processing information that comes to them through their senses. Even though the sensory organs themselves are working correctly the information is not able to be processed in the usual manner in the brain.

A sensory information processing deficiency may be displayed by:

  • sensitivity to surrounding environments and an inability to distinguish irrelevant stimuli,
  • capabilities and the capacity to respond to stimulus may vary daily. Performance is characterised by discrepancies, inconsistencies and variability,
  • ignoring some sounds but overreact or hypersensitive to others,
  • playing with, seeking out or selectively reacting to certain sounds,
  • actively avoiding eye contact, brief or lacking in social intent,
  • using peripheral vision rather than central vision (therefore gives the appearance of not giving eye contact or looking),
  • focusing intently on the small visual details of walls, furniture, objects, prints, pictures or body parts but does not see the whole picture,
  • displaying an intense interest in light or shiny reflective surfaces e.g. may filter light through fingers or stare at lights or reflections in glasses, watch water going down the plughole,
  • exploring by smelling or mouthing objects, people and surfaces,
  • eating difficulties that could be related to the smell, texture or flavour of food,
  • chewing or eat things that are not food,
  • demonstrating high thresholds to pain,
  • an inability to feel extremes of temperature,
  • participating in repetitive movements such as rocking, bouncing, flapping arms and hands, or spinning with no apparent dizziness,
  • seeking out vibrations,
  • moving hands or body in unusual (often rigid) postures,
  • difficulty with identifying where their body is in space and planning motor movements,
  • walking on tiptoes,
  • rocking, spinning or flapping their hands to stimulate sensation, to help with balance and posture or to deal with stress,
  • experiencing disturbed sleep patterns, and
  • having difficulty with toilet training.

At AEIOU Foundation, we focus on supporting children by using strategies and practices that are shown to be effective through research. As a result, we assist children and their sensory needs in our program with a supported, behavioural approach.


We use ‘cookies’ to track our website performance and to give you the best user experience on our website. Cookies also ensure advertising is relevant to you. Click to continue, or for more information, look at our privacy policy.