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All people on the autism spectrum are affected to some degree in two main areas: social communication and repetitive patterns of behaviour. Autism is also often characterised by sensory sensitivities. Autism is a lifelong developmental condition.

The quality of life for many children and adults is significantly improved by a diagnosis that leads to appropriate evidence-informed intervention or support that recognises individual strengths and interests.

Aspect supports people on the spectrum and their families by providing information, education and a variety of services that meet the specific needs of each individual.

For a person to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum, they must present with social communication and social interaction difficulties. These difficulties are accompanied by restricted or repetitive behaviours, interests or activities.

Characteristics of autism

Social communication issues

  • Difficulty understanding non-verbal communication, such as body language
  • Difficulty understanding when and how to appropriately respond in social interactions
  • Trouble developing, understanding and maintaining relationships with others

Early signs of autism may include failure to respond to ones name, reduced interest in people and delayed babbling. By toddlerhood, many children on the autism spectrum have difficulty playing social games or imitating the actions of others. They may prefer to play alone. Young children may not seek comfort or respond to parents' affection in typical ways.

Both children and adults on the spectrum also tend to have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking and feeling. Subtle social cues such as a smile, wave or grimace may not be easily understood. This can make the social world seem bewildering.

Many autistic individuals have similar difficulty seeing things from another person's perspective. While most five-year-olds begin to understand that other people have different thoughts and feelings than they have, a person on the autism spectrum may not have such understanding. This, in turn, can make it difficult to predict or understand another person’s actions.

People on the autism spectrum may have difficulty regulating emotions. This can take the form of crying or having an unexpected outburst and is most likely to occur in unfamiliar, overwhelming or frustrating situations.

People on the autism spectrum may use speech in unusual ways. They may speak only single words or repeatedly voice the same phrase. Some go through a stage where they repeat back what others say (echolalia).

Some children speak fluently but have difficulty sustaining a conversation. They may speak in monologues on a favourite subject, without giving others much chance to comment. In other words, the ordinary “give and take” of conversation proves difficult. Some children on the spectrum with superior language skills tend to speak more like adults than like other children of the same age.

Other common difficulties can be in understanding body language, tone of voice or the meaning of expressions such as idioms and slang. People on the spectrum tend to be very literal in their understanding of language.

Conversely, some people may not exhibit typical body language. Facial expressions, movements and gestures may not match what they are saying. Their tone of voice may not appear to reflect their feelings and in some people may be high pitched or flat-toned. It is important to understand the individual well, so that their specific individual needs can be successfully met.

Repetitive patterns of behaviour

  • Repetitive use of movement, speech or objects
  • Easily upset by changes to routine, environment, and the familiar
  • Very narrow and intense focus on limited areas of interest

Unusual repetitive behaviours and/or a tendency to engage in a restricted range of activities are another core symptom of autism. Common repetitive behaviours include hand-flapping, rocking, jumping and twirling, arranging and rearranging objects, and repeating sounds, words, or phrases. Sometimes the repetitive behaviour is self-stimulating, such as wiggling fingers in front of the eyes.

The tendency to engage in a restricted range of activities can be seen in the way that many children on the autism spectrum play with toys. Some spend hours lining up toys in a specific way rather than using them for pretend play. Similarly, some adults strongly prefer to have household or other objects in a fixed order or place. It can prove extremely upsetting if someone or something disrupts the order. It can be very important to provide children and adults with consistency in their environment to help them cope and enjoy daily routines.

Repetitive behaviours can take the form of intense interests, or passions. These extreme interests may seem unusual to others (e.g. fans, vacuum cleaners or toilets) and the depth of knowledge (e.g. knowing and repeating detailed information about Thomas the Tank Engine or astronomy) can be impressive. Older children and autistic adults may develop tremendous interest in numbers, symbols, dates or any other topics.

Sensory Processing Difficulties

These sensory processing difficulties can include hyper-sensitivity to odours, over-responsiveness to taste and textures of foods, smells, touch, loud noises, bright lights and even sensitivity to bright sunlight when outside.

However, this is not an exhausted list and for those that experience sensory processing difficulties they can be different from person to person with various environmental factors triggering them.

For people on the spectrum who do experience these sensory challenges and their parents/carers and families, it can have a range of impacts on everyday life at home, school, work, in social groups and community settings. These impacts can also affect participation, resulting in social exclusion.

To delve further into sensory processing difficulties, the Aspect Practice newsletter, ‘Making sense of senses’, heard from three different points of view to gain a better understanding of how sensitivities can impact people on the spectrum and what strategies can be used to support them. The three different views are:

  • From the perspective of two people on the autism spectrum that experience sensory processing difficulties, Jarred and Daniel and a parent, Jarred’s mother Cathie
  • From a professional in the autism field, Dr Jill Ashburner of Autism Queensland, about the framework she and her colleagues have developed to guide good practice sensory supports
  • From an Occupational Therapist, Caroline Mills of Aspect, to delve into how Aspect supports people on the spectrum and their families to increase participation for those who experience sensory processing difficulties and find out about her research in the field

Aspect has developed a simplified sensory assessment and planning template. A description of how to use this form and the template are included here..

Aspect Practice ‘making sense of senses’ newsletter

To download Aspect Practice ‘Making sense of senses’ Focus newsletter, click here. The newsletter invites you to connect with us across social media and has a list of takeaway resources about sensory processing difficulties.

To view our past Focus newsletters, click here.

Interactive Module

Aspect & Positive Partnerships have collaborated to develop an on-line interactive Sensory Processing module for parents/carer's and educators wanting to strengthen their understanding of sensory processing.

Key features include:

Learning how to identify the unique sensory profile of an individual
Getting access to strategies and tools that can support individuals to manage their own sensory style and meet their sensory needs
Video stories from individuals and families sharing their personal sensory experiences

It is free to use (but you have to register to access)

"It's a sensory thing."

Sensory Processing Webinar by Caroline Mills, Occupational Therapist

Understanding the lived experiences and needs of people on the autism spectrum

Aspect has been active in researching the everyday life experiences and needs of people on the autism spectrum. This research helps to raise awareness, promote discussion and pave the way for improving the services and supports that are essential for a good quality of life.

Aspect conducted the first We Belong study in 2011 to profile the experiences, needs and aspirations of a sample of autistic adults across a broad range of life domains. Visit the We Belong microsite for more information.

We Belong Too was conducted by Aspect in 2013 to build on the previous We Belong study. In a first for Australian research, adolescents on the spectrum, along with parents, were directly surveyed to create a statistically sound profile of the life experiences, aspirations and future support needs of this growing group of young Australians. Find out more here.

The We Belong study was extended in 2016 with the publication of the book Shining a Light on the Autism Spectrum: Experiences and Aspirations of Adults. In a unique collaboration between Aspect researchers and adults on the autism spectrum, the book illustrates the original data with personal stories and case studies written by adults on the autism spectrum to present their experiences, aspirations and needs in their own words.

As the next step in this series of studies, in 2017 Aspect commenced work on a new research project, Ageing on the autism spectrum. The aim of this project is to identify the service needs of older adults on the autism spectrum. Phase 1 of the project will gather the opinions of older adults on the autism spectrum about their expectations for their future needs, as they age.

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