What is Autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects the way people communicate and interact with the world around them.

Understanding Autism in children

By increasing your knowledge and understanding of autism in children and adults can help you support them.

People with autism may share some similar characteristics. The autism spectrum is not linear from high to low, but varies, all people on the spectrum are different.

Some people with autism can live independently. Others face extra challenges, including learning difficulties, and require a range of different support.

Differences in Autism

Autism is a hidden or invisible disability. You can’t see if someone has autism by looking at them.

There are some behaviours and ways of communicating that a person on the spectrum may use, however every person is unique.


Some people with autism find socialising difficult.

A person on the autism spectrum may find social interaction challenging due to misunderstanding social cues. This can affect their communication skills, social interactions, understanding others, perspective taking and conversation.


Individuals may find it harder to understand abstract concepts.

Differences in social imagination can make it harder for people with autism to cope with new or unexpected situations. Many people on the spectrum like to know what is going to happen in advance. They like to have set routines for the activities they do. They may have routines and repetition around things they like, such as clothes, food, hobbies, and conversations.

Some people with autism may have intense and highly focused interests.


Children with autism may find it difficult to relate to and communicate with other people.

They might be slower to develop language skills, have no language, or have significant difficulties in understanding or using spoken language.

Some children may not understand that communication is reciprocal or may not understand the use of social cues such as eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and words.

Although some children develop speech they may still have trouble knowing how to use language to communicate with others effectively. This can sometimes impact a child’s behaviour and learning.


Children with sensory processing difficulties can be over sensitive or under sensitive to their environments.

Environments are full of sensory information, including noise, crowds, smell, light, clothing, temperature. We process this information using our senses.

Not all children on the spectrum have sensory sensitivities, but some may have several.

Individuals on the spectrum often also have other conditions or dual diagnosis, which can make their support needs more complex.


Restricted and repetitive behaviours vary across the autism spectrum.

They can include:

  • Repetitive body movements (e.g. rocking, flapping, spinning, running back and forth)
  • Repetitive motions with objects (e.g. spinning wheels, shaking sticks, flipping levers)
  • Staring at lights or spinning objects
  • Ritualistic behaviours (e.g. lining up objects, repeatedly touching objects in a set order)
  • Narrow or extreme interests in specific interests


The common name for repetitive behaviours in individuals on the spectrum is stimming, short for ‘self-stimulatory behaviour’.

Some stims are barely noticeable and some can be very visible. They vary in frequency and appearance depending on the person on the autism spectrum.

  • Echolalia: repetition of another person’s spoken words or repeating of the same word over and over. It helps them process the information they’ve heard.
  • Visual: staring at lights, doing things to make the vision flicker (repetitive blinking or shaking fingers in front of the eyes), staring at spinning objects.
  • Auditory: listening to the same song or noise on repeat or making vocal sounds, tapping ears and snapping fingers.
  • Tactile: rubbing the skin with hands or with another object or scratching.
  • Taste/smell: sniffing objects or people; licking or chewing on things, often things that aren’t edible.
  • Proprioception: this is the body’s ability to feel where it is and what it’s doing. This might include rocking, swinging, jumping, pacing, running, tiptoeing or spinning. These all give the body’s sense of balance and position a boost. Some children enjoy the sensation of deep pressure.


Routines help children feel safe, develop life skills and build healthy habits.  Consistency is very important for many children and young people.

The world can be unpredictable, which can be frightening and create anxiety. Knowing what is going to happen and when, can help young people manage their anxiety.

When working towards a routine, a great strength of many people on the spectrum is punctuality, reliability and focus. Routines can also offer individuals a sense of comfort and predictability.


There are strategies that can reduce distress and increase resilience to change.

  • Visual prompts: using pictures to help children and young people expect what is going to happen. For example, pictures of unknown places, visual timetables or social stories.
  • Physical prompts: making transitional visits. For example, visit a new location (like the doctor’s surgery) before the appointment so they’re familiar with the environment, using objects of reference.
  • Make back-up plans: sometimes things change unexpectedly, so having a back-up plan is important. This might include planning alternative travel routes, or bringing books or games to use during any unexpected, unstructured time.


It’s common for children on the spectrum to behave in ways that are challenging or difficult to manage.

For example they may:

  • refuse or ignore requests
  • behave in socially inappropriate ways, like taking their clothes off in public
  • behave aggressively, hurting themselves or others, for example, by head-banging or biting.

Children and teenagers might behave in challenging ways because they:

  • have trouble understanding what’s happening around them. For example, what other people are saying or communicating non-verbally.
  • have difficulty communicating their own wants and needs, which can lead to frustration
  • are highly anxious and stressed
  • feel overwhelmed by what’s going on around them.

Your child’s difficult behaviour might also have specific triggers.

  • Planning can help mitigate against triggers that might lead to a meltdown.
  • You can reduce anxiety about situations by providing information in advance, such as a visual support.
  • You can reduce the likelihood of a meltdown by creating environments that don’t overwhelm the senses. Allow children to wear ear defenders in noisy rooms or dim the lights to create a less harsh ambience.
  • It can be difficult and distressing to support someone during a meltdown, so it’s important to know what to do in advance.
  • The best way to find out what causes a meltdown is to ask the person or someone who knows them.
  • The best remedy for a shutdown is giving the person the space to rest, recuperate, and recover.
  • A shutdown can be like a reset for a person on the autism spectrum.

Support to understand autism in children

Contact me to learn more about the services I provide to support families and schools to understand autism in children.