What is Autism?

What is Autism exactly?

According to CDC (Center for Disease Control) 3.5 million Americans live with autism.

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the way people communicate and interact with the world. It is “developmental” because it is diagnosed as early as childhood and it persists into adolescence and adulthood. It includes limited interests in things and people, repetitive activities and sometimes involves self-stimulatory repetitive movements like back and forth rocking movements, wiggling of the head, etc. It also affects fine motor skills (holding a pencil, picking up tiny objects, turning pages of a book, etc. and gross motor skills (jumping, running, etc.) The emergence of the symptoms during childhood is variable. While some children are identified earlier on, mostly before age 3, others are only identified much later.

Autism is called a spectrum because it ranges from individuals who are the least affected to those who are the most affected. Medication does not cure autism, it only helps control its manifestations. For instance, some medications address the rocking back and forth, others address self-stimulatory behaviors, others target anxiety, etc.

While autism is better understood now, we still cannot narrow it to a single cause. While genetic factors are the number one suspect, nothing specific has been established by research, so far. Autism occurs along a spectrum of severity spanning from mild deficits to a wide range of complex behavioral and academic challenges. This complexifies the provision of effective behavioral and academic supports by school districts.

Until recently, it was viewed improper to describe individuals as being autistic, it was politically correct to refer to these individuals as “individuals with autism”. Most recently, it has become acceptable to refer to these individuals collectively as “autistic”.

Autism affects communication, behavior and learning. Autistic individuals share the same challenges but rarely to the same degree. This makes the task of educators quite complex. Behavioral treatment proved effective for many using ABA science (Applied Behavior Analysis) however, social and communicative remain a challenge that is still very much resistant to treatment.

Collectively, autism is described to be a diagnosis of “absence” because, unlike typical learners who are described by what they can do, autistic individuals are characterized by what they don’t do. For instance, he or she:


Does not

make eye contact.


Does not

show interest in others.


Does not

interact with toys in the manner he or she should.


Does not

show affection towards others.


Does not

respond to his or her name, etc.


Does not

imitate the action of others


Does not

share attention and focus.


Does not

orient to socially important stimuli.


Does not

transfer knowledge (also called “generalization”) from one setting to another, from one person to another, from one time of day to another, etc.


Main Social Characteristics of autistic individuals:

  • Not responding to one’s name when called.
  • Fleeting or poor eye contact.
  • Difficulty with initiating or maintaining a conversation.
  • Perseverating on a specific topic of interest.
  • Using scripted language.
  • Lack of empathy towards others.
  • Difficulty in understanding the mental states or thoughts of others
  • Challenged in understanding nonverbal communication (smile, eye-rolling, yawning out of boredom, etc.).
  • Struggle in empathizing with the feelings of others (feeling sad when others are sad, laughing when others are laughing, etc.).
  • Weakness in engaging in pretend play (e.g. barking and pretending to be a dog, using a bowl as pretend hat, snoring to pretend to be sleeping, etc.)
  • Difficulty using language to communicate effectively.
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities include
  • The child may exhibit strong interests in a specific topic or toy.
  • Extreme interests (e.g. memorizing the names of the presidents of their country, dates in history, naming all mammals, memorizing all categories of planes and being able to name them, etc.)
  • Rigidity about time, daily routines, feeding, specific placements for specific objects, scheduled routines, etc.
  • Atypical body movements that are difficult to miss, such as spinning objects or spinning their bodies in circles, rocking back and forth, walking on their toes, flapping their hands or flicking their fingers.
  • Over or under-sensitive to temperatures, textures, smell or sound. Reluctance to wear certain fabrics, intolerance to tags, to bedsheets that are not the specific fabric they are used to.
  • Unusual play-based behaviors like lining up toys, categorizing them, placing them only in the same position and place. Some children will repetitively drop objects to watch them fall, spinning items (plates, cups, etc.) endlessly, or other objects that are not meant to spin.
  • A typical eye gaze whereby the individual may peer at objects from the corner of his or her eye but also may place them directly in his or her field of vision, moving them in and out of that field.

Globally, autism limits verbal and nonverbal communication and is manifested in the following features:

a. Communicating socially, such as greeting, responding to the greetings of others, back and forth of sharing information with others.b. Adapting communication methods depending on the audience (adults, friends, strangers, teachers, etc.)

c. Taking turns in conversations, accepting the opinions of others even when/if different from ours, using and/or interpreting the nonverbal language of others

d. Understanding even what is not explicitly obvious and making inferences that are not always verbalized by others.

e. Relate better to objects than they relate to people because of the severity in their social-communication skills.

Autism in the classroom

The first step in the educational system is “identification”. Usually, a teacher expresses a concern about a student’s learning and behavioral profile and makes what is called a “referral” to the school administration.

Concurrently, parents who suspect that something is not quite right with their child, consult the family doctor about their concern. The doctor usually recommends that a neurological evaluation be done to determine what, if anything, is affecting the development of their child.

School districts are often first in identifying the students be behind their peers in their development. When that occurs, the district has the legal obligation to evaluate the child across various areas of learning to include a neurological evaluation, if the parents have done one already. These evaluations are at the district’s expense and do not cost anything to parents.

Autistic students are students first. From preschool (age 3) through 21 they are eligible to receive appropriate services through their public school system, based on the outcomes of the Child Study Team Evaluations, we just mentioned. Once the student is evaluated and assessed to need services, an IEP (Individual Educational Program) reflecting the areas of needs of the student, is developed by the Child Study Team. A Child Study Team is a team of professionals within their own rights, and it includes the parents.

Educational programs for autistic students often gravitate towards the core symptoms of autism, social impairments, communication challenges, restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests, difficulties in staying focused, in processing information, etc. The area of focus of IEP’s are generally, academic skills, communication and social skills, speech and language, the processing of information, functional life skills, play and leisure skills.