Section 4: Understand the characteristics that may be present in individuals with
Q11: Describe the main characteristics found in individuals with autism. Try to include as many examples as you can. (4.1)
a) Behavioural characteristics
One of the most common characteristics of autism is having difficulties with social interaction with other people, causing difficulties of understanding social norms, rules and concepts such as ‘friendships’. This can also affect eye contact and individuals with autism may not be able to make eye contact or keep it for a long period of time. Similarly, autism may affect communication which can either be verbal or non-verbal, replacing non-verbal gestures and body languages with noises or
using pictures to identify wants and needs. Some people with autism may speak ‘conventionally’ but struggle with understanding and holding a conversation. Someone with autism may also struggle with senses, where they may be highly sensitive to taste, sounds, smells and touches resulting in them experiencing physical pain if senses get too much. There can also be problems interpreting emotions which can result in individuals with autism becoming anxious and uncertain due to not being able to tell the mood of the room and the people surrounding them, this can also lead to them behaving
inappropriately or rudely in social situations. There can also be a struggle with literalism and linguistic rigidity, a common trait for those with high-functioning autism, where they struggle with jokes, irony and subtle nuances of social interaction e.g. implication, where they may have to identify how something makes them feel/ define for themselves. Those with severe autism may repeat stock phrases which they’ve heard from others spontaneously, or in some cases to people regardless of what they
are responding to. Echolalia is where someone may echo what another person has said, and although not all people with autism display this, it can indicate that the individual understands there needs a response, but doesn’t have the knowledge, skills or awareness to give the needed response.
It is known that in some cases of autism that an individual may obsess or have an intense interest which can take up a lot of their time. Depending on the age, this could be a particular TV character or toy, or could be a train, bicycle, type of animal. This is known as stereotypy and theorists differ on how to treat this. Stimming is another type of compulsive and repetitive behaviour where the individual may make repetitive movements, such as hand movements, lining up objects, moving or rocking back and forth or making repetitive noises. This is also debated on whether or not it is an integral part of autism spectrum conditions or simply a coping mechanism in response to stress. Stimming can be seen as a way maintain ‘order’ in a ‘disordered’ world. Savant syndrome is rare and can affect some people with autism. It can be described as having extraordinary abilities in a particular skill or activity, such as being able to do mathematical calculations quickly, may have an increased musical or artistic ability or have an extraordinary memory.
b) Physical characteristics
Alongside behavioural characteristics, there are also physical characteristics that may be connected to, or possibly caused by, autism. Common physical characteristics include bowel problems or gut pains which can be biological, environmental or behavioural depending on the interpretation. Autism can cause obsessive behaviours, such as creating a restricted diet leading to an eating disorder; an eating disorder can also be caused from Sensory Processing Disorder which can heighten taste and
smell making eating almost painful. Someone with autism may also eat inedible objects which is referred to as ‘Pica’. Mental health illnesses can also be associated with autism especially stress and anxiety – it is not certain if autism causes mental health illnesses or they are caused due to unmet needs. Autism may also play a factor in behaviour that challenges which can be due to a range of factors, including anxiety caused by perceived ‘threats’ from the outside world; a result of frustration due to a failure to communicate needs successfully; a simple habit; an alternative to suitable behaviour, or what the individual knows as suitable behaviour; it can also cause an increase of epileptic seizures.
Q12: Describe how these characteristics can vary from individual to individual. (4.2)
Autism is a spectrum condition and as explained before, varies person to person. Differences can be seen most clearly in communication, social interaction, repetitive and obsessive behaviour and Sensory Processing Disorder. Communication can be affected in a few different ways. A person with autism may not speak conventionally, and may use sentences that sound more rehearsed or are echoed. Someone with autism can also have a more limited vocabulary or in some cases, a larger range of vocabulary. Some may also make noises in order to communicate. The use of gesture is a telltale sign in autism where someone may use physical gestures to support what they are saying. Gestures similar to this could be related to ‘stimming’ which can be attempts to communicate, or support communication, whilst others will not. Someone with autism may also use different symbols in order to communicate. The Picture Exchange Communication System, often referred to as PECS, can be used to help those who have autism but are non verbal. The PECS works by offering the individual different photos to help them request and communicate different needs e.g. what they would like to do, eat, or talk about. In some cases, this can even be inbuilt into an electronic device. Some may use signs rather than verbal communication, this is called ‘Makaton’. It is a simplified version of sign language that can be used to support communication, or used as a form of communication. Characteristics can also affect social interaction. This can include physical contact, where someone with ASC may avoid physical contact with other people as it may make them feel uncomfortable or similar to physical pain. However, some people with ASC may seek physical contact, especially if they are hypersensitive as they will enjoy the movement. Eye contact is another key feature of autism and usually someone with ASC will not be able to maintain eye contact. This may be due to the ‘severity’ of the autism but this is not concrete fact. Those with ‘milder’ characteristics may be more aware of their own social difficulties and be less willing to give eye contact as a result of this. Someone with ASC may have a negative reaction to crowds, causing anxiety and distress. Being put in a situation that is too noisy and busy can also attract negative moods. Depending on the type of person will depend on the reaction. Anxiety and distress can also be caused if the person is put in an unfamiliar surrounding as they may be unsure of how they are expected to behave, this may trigger behaviour that challenges as they are unsure and may also become withdrawn and distressed. The final component of the ‘triad of impairments’ is repetitive and obsessive behaviour or interests. This can differ from person to person depending on their age, gender and potentially other factors. Usually, if a child is young, they will be more interested in toys, cartoon characters or animals; whereas older people may be more interested in other things, such as famous people, doors and windows (mainly safety), trains or computers. Finally, Sensory Processing Disorder can cause problems with social interaction and repetitive behaviour. SPD can cause issues with the senses, making them struggle with processing or dealing with objects and interactions relating to the five senses, causing individuals to become hyper-sensitive or under-sensitive. A person with autism and SPD may have an issue with sight relating to specific colours or dislike of others, feeling anxious when confronted with visions that are too bright or busy (relating back to social interactions that are busy e.g. concerts). Hearing can also be affected as busy noises and too much sound can bring a hyper-sensitive feel making someone feel as if they are in physical pain due to the loud or quiet, or repetitive noise. Some may even be under sensitive resulting in them creating their own noises. Although the least affected, strong smells can cause discomfort and even distress amongst those with autism and therefore may not react well with strong smells, even to the point of becoming irritated. Different tastes and textures can cause issues, being highly sensitive to taste can cause many issues (including eating disorders) and can struggle to eat foods due to taste or texture; in some cases, people with autism may
eat inedible objects, called ‘Pica’. As suggested alongside physical contact, those with autism may struggle with touching or being touched, finding it ‘unpleasant’ or uncomfortable. Although, some with autism actively seek out certain touch sensations, such as firm pressure being applied.
Q13: Outline what is meant by the ‘triad of impairments’. (4.3)
The ‘triad of impairments’ refers to communication, social interaction and repetitive or obsessive behaviour. Autism may affect communication which can either be verbal or non-verbal, replacing non-verbal gestures and body languages with noises or using pictures to identify wants and needs. Some people with autism may speak ‘conventionally’ but struggle with understanding and holding a conversation. An individual with autism may have difficulties with social interaction with other people, causing difficulties of understanding social norms, rules and concepts such as ‘friendships’. This can also affect eye contact and individuals with autism may not be able to make eye contact or keep it for a long period of time. Autism can cause obsessive behaviours, such as creating a restricted diet leading to an eating disorder; an eating disorder can also be caused from Sensory Processing Disorder which can heighten taste and smell making eating almost painful. Someone with autism may also eat inedible objects which is referred to as ‘Pica’. They may also obsess or have an intense interest which can take up a lot of their time. Depending on the age, this could be a particular TV character or toy, or could be a train, bicycle, type of animal.
Q14: Identify two positive and two negative points of the triad of impairments. (4.4)
A positive point about the triad improvements is that someone with ASC can enjoy their own presence, making it harder to become lonely. They may feel no need to socialise or interact with others. Another point which is positive is having interests which they care deeply about, meaning it can bring happiness to a person when they can discuss with someone else.
A negative point about the triad improvements is someone may have problems communicating, causing frustration and difficulty for potentially both parties, as another person may not be able to understand. Another negative point is those with ASC will be at risk of being seen as different, and due to this, may experience being bullied or misunderstood, causing anxiety and depression down the line.