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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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2.1 Main characteristics

The current framework for diagnosing autism identifies two main groups of characteristics. The first concerns social communication and interaction: autistic people find it hard to interact socially with others or to make friends. They have communication difficulties – some can’t speak at all; others develop speech later than usual; others can speak perfectly well, but have problems with the social aspects of communication. For example, they don’t understand when a listener is getting bored by their stories; they may take language very literally or find it hard to get the point of a joke.

The second group of characteristics is ‘non-social’: autistic people tend to have narrow or unusual interests, such as acquiring lots of information about just one type of dinosaur. They often repeat the same activity, ranging from constantly rocking backwards and forwards or flicking the fingers, to always eating the same foods, or repeatedly watching the same video. These traits are collectively known as Restricted and Repetitive Behaviours and Interests (RRBIs). Finally, most autistic people also have unusual sensory responses, such as being overly sensitive to particular sounds, sights or smells, or quite the opposite, for instance being insensitive to sensory inputs such as pain.

While diagnosis is based on these social and non-social difficulties, many autistic people also have enhanced skills such as good attention to and memory for detail, or natural ability with numbers or IT. A very small proportion of individuals on the spectrum have outstanding talents in fields including art and music. 

While social, language and sensory challenges may mean that an autistic person finds it hard to function in a mainstream school or workplace environment, with the right support they can flourish. Employers are beginning to realise the benefit to the workplace of attributes often associated with autism, such as mathematical and IT skills, persistence and attention to detail.