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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Browse the glossary using this index

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Sally–Anne false belief task

An experimental test of a person’s ability to understand that another person may have a different belief about a situation, one which differs from current reality and is thus ‘false’. This test involves a scenario enacted by two dolls called Sally and Anne and the movement of a marble when one is absent. The test is whether the person observing the scenario understands that the character who has been absent will not know that the marble is not in its original position. (See also Theory of Mind.)

Savant talent

A term used for those with profound difficulties in most areas who display an exceptional talent in one area such as art or music.

Selective mutism

This is a condition, seen especially in children, in which a person does not speak or communicate effectively in situations where they do not feel comfortable, secure and relaxed. For instance, a child may not speak – or indeed attempt any communication – at school, yet do so at home with their close family. In many cases, selective mutism can be attributed to extreme social anxiety. When it occurs with autism, it may be part of a more fundamental communication problem.


A person’s capacity to reflect on their own thoughts, feelings and traits.

Sensory hypersensitivity

Heightened sensitivity to sounds, tastes, visual and other stimuli, compared with what most people experience. Common in people on the autism spectrum. (See also sensory hyposensitivity.)

Sensory hyposensitivity

Reduced sensitivity to sounds, tastes, visual and other stimuli, compared with what most people experience. Common in people on the autism spectrum. (See also sensory hypersensitivity.)

Sensory overload

Broadly defined as a state in which individuals are exposed to so many sensory stimuli, or to stimuli at such high intensities, that they become unable to deal with them. For instance, they may become very stressed and/or become unresponsive to sensory input. In autism, hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli means that a person may experience overload even for moderate levels of stimulation that would not be disagreeable for a person without autism.

Sensory processing

The means by which we acquire information about the environment through specialised sense organs, each of which deals with a different modality or dimension of input (sound, smell, taste etc.).


A neurotransmitter involved in complex brain processes, including the regulation of mood, emotions, aggression, sleep and body temperature.

Small-scale evaluation

Relatively informal evaluation of an intervention which precedes a full-scale controlled trial. Small-scale evaluations involve testing the intervention with a small number of individuals and usually include observations before, during and after it has taken place.

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