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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Browse the glossary using this index

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A theory offers an explanation of how and why something occurs and may also identify the cause. Theories are derived from research findings and also inform the ongoing development of research.

Theory of Mind (ToM)

A person’s understanding of other people’s thoughts, knowledge, beliefs and feelings, including recognition that these may be different from their own. Also sometimes referred to as ‘mindreading’. Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty with this.

Tower of Hanoi

A task in which a set of differently sized rings have to be transferred from one peg to another in the fewest moves but with certain constraints, such as not being able to place a larger ring on a smaller one. Used as a test of executive function.

Treatment as usual

A common procedure in a controlled intervention study where the participants who do not receive the intervention under evaluation receive a standard intervention or one that they have been receiving previous to the evaluation.


This denotes the fact that in conversation a person generally does not interrupt what another is saying, but waits until there is a suitable gap and responds by following on from their point(s). People with autism may have difficulty with turn-taking, appearing impolite because they interrupt the other person, perhaps with a comment that seems irrelevant to the topic. (See also reciprocity.)

Twin study

A research method used to evaluate how frequently a particular condition or characteristic co-occurs in both members of monozygotic (identical) twin pairs as compared with dizygotic (non-identical) twins. Higher co-occurrence (concordance) in monozygotic twins provides evidence that the condition or characteristic is genetically inherited. Used in exploring the genetic basis for autism.

Typically developing (TD)

Term used (e.g. in research) to denote the kind of development which is seen in the majority of the population, as contrasted with the characteristics of people with a condition such as autism. It is often used in describing children as that is when most development is expected to occur, and when certain key milestones (such as walking and the onset of speech) are typically attained in a broadly regular sequence. (See also neurotypical.)


Unusual sensory responses

Finding some sights, sounds, tastes, smells or touch distressing or unbearable (see sensory hypersensitivity). Alternatively appearing not to notice some sensory stimuli (see sensory hyposensitivity).



Slight changes in the DNA sequences which makes up genes, as a result of mutations. Such changes may alter the instructions coded by a gene, leading to alterations in physical or psychological traits and behaviour.


Weak central coherence

A term sometimes used for the cognitive style characterised by focusing on individual details rather than the overall form, meaning or gist. In autism this may be especially apparent in the visual processing of scenes, and in language processing, where word meanings are processed individually rather than in their context within sentences. However, the evidence for this processing style in autism is mixed.

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