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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Thursday, 6 Oct 2022, 02:25
Site: Open Learning
Course: Understanding autism (AUT_1)
Glossary: Glossary


The idea that the kinds of difference seen in conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia arise from natural genetic variation within the population and should be regarded as a normal aspect of human existence, not as something pathological that needs to be treated or cured.


A cell type in the brain and nervous system, which is specialised for processing and transmitting information. Neurons have long thin fibres which collectively make up the nerves of the body.


A chemical involved in carrying a signal from one neuron to another across gaps between neurons known as synapses.


The term neurotypical (NT) was first used within the autism community to denote people who are not on the autism spectrum. The implication is that their brain and mental functioning is typical rather than atypical, particularly in relation to communication and social interaction. The term avoids the problematic connotations of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’. It has been quite widely adopted, and is recommended by the National Autistic Society.

Non-verbal communication

The use of non-verbal means, including prosody (pitch, intonation and stress), facial expression and gestures, to express meaning in communication.


Observational methods

Methods widely used in the natural and social sciences. Observational methods typically focus on naturally occurring behaviour, thus contrasting with experiments, which study responses to specially devised tests in a controlled setting. Observational studies may, like experiments, compare a target group (say of autistic participants) with a control group. The observational method usually involves coding of the observations, analysing this information either quantitatively (e.g. scoring or counting particular behaviours) or qualitatively (a more holistic appraisal).

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

This is an anxiety condition in which a person repeatedly experiences unwelcome thoughts, images, urges, worries or doubts and tries to allay these by carrying out an activity repeatedly, for instance repeatedly checking that a door is locked. Due to the repetitive nature of the compulsions, they may have a serious effect on the person’s ability to carry out daily tasks.

Operant conditioning

B.F. Skinner’s key principle of learning, stating that all animals’ behaviour operates on the environment with consequences that modify the tendency to repeat the behaviour. Rewarding consequences make repeating the behaviour more likely. Skinner called this reinforcement. For instance, if a non-verbal child is rewarded for making a verbal request this should reinforce the occurrence of this behaviour. These ideas are central to the ABA approach to autism intervention. (See also reinforcement and ABA.)

Optimal outcome

A developmental outcome in which an autistic person’s symptoms have modified or ameliorated to such an extent that the diagnostic criteria for autism are no longer met.

Outcome measure

A measure of the extent to which a particular skill or behaviour targeted by an intervention has changed or improved at the end of a controlled study.