Characteristics of ASD


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder. ASD is described as a spectrum disorder because it impacts individuals in a variety of ways and the severity of symptoms varies across individuals. For this reason, researchers may use descriptions such as a kaleidoscope of characteristics and the many faces of Autism when describing the presentation of ASD. Although there is no uniform way in which characteristics associated with ASD impact individuals, there are two core areas of impairment that must be present to warrant a diagnosis (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Core Areas of Impairment

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder have difficulty in these core areas:

  1. Social communication and social interaction; this will include deficits in the following areas:
    • Social-emotional reciprocity
    • Nonverbal communicative behaviours
    • Developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships

For example, a student with ASD may:

  • Fail to respond, or respond in an unexpected way, when another student attempts to interact with them
  • Have difficulty using language to express their needs and desires
  • Have difficulty understanding or following verbal directions
  • Lack turn-taking skills or fail to take turns in conversations
  • Have difficulties understanding non-verbal concepts such as personal space, facial expressions, and body language
  1. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities, such as:
    • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech
    • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal nonverbal behavior
    • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
    • Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment

For example, a student with ASD may:

  • Be more interested in lining up toys than playing with them
  • Experience distress or anxiety when routines, expectations or small details in the environment are changed
  • Have a fascination with certain interests that can interfere with motivation to learn other things
  • Over or under react to sensory stimuli, such as not liking to get their hands wet (tactile), covering their ears in response to loud noises (auditory), and repeatedly seeking out certain movements, such as spinning (vestibular)

Exact symptoms and severity of symptoms will vary across individuals.

Other areas of impairment often associated with ASD:

  • Executive Functioning: Difficulty in using higher order cognitive processes, such as attention, inhibition, flexibility, emotional regulation, planning, and organization, that assist in managing oneself to achieve a goal.
  • Cognitive Abilities: Refers to a variety of abilities that Western cultures commonly associate with intelligence, including: non-verbal reasoning abilities, language-based abilities, memory, visual-spatial abilities, and processing speed. Some students with ASD will have delays across multiple areas of functioning which can result in an additional diagnosis of an intellectual disability of varying severity (mild to severe) or an uneven profile of abilities (strengths in some areas, weaknesses in others). However, other students with ASD will present with average to superior abilities across all areas (Baio et al., 2018).
  • Motor Skills: Delays may exist in the acquisition of motor milestones and fundamental motor skills related to gross motor control, fine motor control, postural control (Bhat, Landa & Galloway, 2011).
  • Additional health considerations: Individuals with ASD can present with additional physical and mental health challenges. Some of the health considerations that students with ASD commonly present with include: anxiety-based disorders, ADHD, tic disorders, seizure disorders, gastrointestinal problems, and sleep dysfunction (Chaidez et al., 2014; Deprey & Ozonoff, 2009; Maski et al., 2011).

Related Resources

  • Link to eLearnings on the characteristics of ASD
  • Link to Handout

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Baio, J., Wiggins, L., Christensen D.L., et al. (2018). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years – autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2014. MMWR, 67, 1 – 23.

Bhat, A., Landa, R., & Galloway, J. (2011). Current perspectives on motor functioning in infants, children, and adults with autism spectrum disorders. Physical Therapy, 91, 1116-1129.

Chaidez, V., Hansen, R. L., & Hertz-Picciotto, I. (2014). Gastrointestinal problems in children with autism, developmental delays or typical development. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(5), 1117–1127.

Deprey, L. & Ozonoff, S. (2009). Assessment of comorbid psychiatric conditions in autism spectrum disorders. In Goldstein, S., Naglieri, J. A. & Ozonoff, S. (Eds.), Assessment of autism spectrum disorders (290 – 317). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Maski, K. P., Jeste, S. S., & Spence, S. J. (2011). Common neurological co-morbidities in autism spectrum disorders. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, 23(6), 609–615.