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UPDATED – Autism: Social communication, sensory issues and repetitive thought patterns or behaviours… The key features of autism, from a diagnostic perspective

UPDATED – Autism: Social communication, sensory issues and repetitive thought patterns or behaviours… The key features of autism, from a diagnostic perspective

This blog post marks a new, occasional series counting 100 autism FAQs. This article includes some info about the main diagnostic factors used for autism spectrum conditions (or ASCs – diagnostically referred to as ‘autism spectrum disorders’, or ASDs).

(1)Social communication, repetitive thought patterns or behaviours and sensory issues

The common, key features of an autism spectrum condition are: (1)social communication and social interaction issues, (2)restricted or repetitive thought patterns or behaviours and (3)sensory challenges.

(1)Issues with expected social communication and social interaction may affect the autist’s ability to adapt into so-called mainstream society; these issues may also affect the person’s care and support needs, in terms of their employment, and social integration. This area is likely to affect their anxiety levels too, as many autists are prone to anxious episodes. BUT – many autists are at peace with the differences that their social communication and social interaction issues bring. They may for example very much enjoy their own company; and the fact that they’re not compelled to take part in the social minutiae of daily integration is not necessarily a bad thing, if it leaves the autist more time to enjoy their interests, and close friend or family interactions!

An aspie’s point of view: “Expected social communication and social interactions are probably the areas where I feel most challenged by my autism. Large groups of people, places where ‘chit-chat’ is expected, or anyone that I am expected to talk to, but don’t know what to talk about – these are all anxiety-inducing areas! But yes, my aspie perspective (perhaps considered anti-social by outsiders) does leave me more time or ‘head-space’ to enjoy my interests and be selective about who I chat to, and most importantly, WHEN.”

(2) Restricted or repetitive thought patterns or behaviours – sometimes referred to as ‘Flexible Imaginative Functions’ – can manifest in autists in different ways – from hyper-focussing on an issue or becoming seemingly obsessive about a special interest, to adopting repetitive processes or patterns. The NAS states – “Obsessions, repetitive behaviour and routines can be a source of enjoyment for autistic people and a way of coping with everyday life. But they may also limit people’s involvement in other activities and cause distress or anxiety….”
(Read more from the NAS HERE).
Restricted thought patterns or behaviours ARE often limiting to an autist; and to others, especially neurotypical people, they may seem annoying or confusing .
(Read about self-stimulatory behaviours, or stimming, HERE).
However, there’s often an element of control, ‘safeness’ or comfort in the regularity of repetitive behaviours that helps an autist feel calm. They’re just part of an autist’s ‘make up’, after all! And once one has identified that one engages in repetitive thought patterns, especially non-helpful ones, there are ways to help break the pattern, or at least notice that it exists! (For example, some advocates of brain-training concepts like the Lightning Process, which involves learning how to use one’s brain to improve body health, maintain that all of us, no matter what our neurology, can-retrain the brain to stop ‘playing’ unhelpful, repetitive patterns.)
There’s also the argument that this rigidity of thought seen in autists does lend itself, in some individuals at least, to good planning, ‘pattern spotting’ (leading to good problem-solving), and organisation; a great workplace skill, and an often-great personal attribute, as well.

An aspie’s point of view: “Yes, restricted thought patterns or behaviours can be limiting. Probably one of the greatest challenges is the fact that autists like (and need) their routines, and the tiniest change can literally throw our whole day out from a mental or emotional perspective. One thing that wasn’t planned for, that is seemingly inconsequential to outsiders, can throw me from being calm and in a good place to extremely anxious and even angry. My family knows not to touch my office chair, move things in my handbag, or go anywhere near my well-organised jewellery box!”

(3)A further key factor is the relevance of sensory issues in autists, e.g. over or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, light, temperatures etc; this can affect them greatly. The National Autistic Society (NAS) states – “Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Any of the senses may be over or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. These sensory differences can affect behaviour, and can have a profound effect on a person’s life.”
(Read more from the NAS HERE).
However, autists are also renowned as sometimes experiencing amazing phenomena that stem from their sensory differences, from the way they hear and experience music, to their definitions of colours and sounds. While sensory differences are often an undoubted difficulty in terms of going about one’s daily life with autism, with all of life’s noise, colour and ‘busyness’, at the same time, there are some positives to be taken from the unique sensory experiences that some autists may have, particularly where an enjoyment of music is concerned.
(Read our ‘autism and music’ blog HERE. And check out further details on synesthesia HERE).

An aspie’s point of view: “It is important to point out that as the NAS states, any of the senses may be over or under-sensitive at different times for autists. This leaves me feeling reasonably capable on some days, but very challenged on others. On challenged days (over-sensitive), I find noise difficult – less so than lighting. Every little noise can be grating and annoying, making me wince and cringe. There’s a very real risk of sensory overload or ‘over-whelm’. Some things – the sound of someone eating, a clock ticking – can be incredibly annoying. On under-sensitive days I specifically listen to loud rock music, extremely loud, as it helps my brain to recalibrate. I am super lucky to be able to feel and enjoy music in a way that I don’t believe many people, and especially some neurotypicals, are able to.”

NB – Autism was formerly defined by what was coined the ‘triad of impairments’, a concept introduced in the late 1970s. (Wing and Gould.) Read our blog questioning whether the term is outdated HERE).

A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Conditions / Disorders; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.