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Learn about Autism > Characteristics

Autism is a spectrum disorder. That is, the symptoms and characteristics of ASD can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. Although ASD is defined by a set of certain characteristics, children and adults can exhibit any combination of these characteristics in any degree of severity. This means that two children, with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills and needs. For example, a child with autism can have an IQ of 80; another child with autism can have an IQ of 65. Additionally, children with a diagnosis of autism can be either nonverbal or verbal.

Every person with ASD is a unique individual and, like all individuals, has a unique personality and combination of characteristics. Some individuals with mild autism exhibit only slight delays in language but greater challenges with social interactions. For example, they may have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Individuals with autism are often described as talking at others instead of with others (e.g., they may monologue on a favorite subject that continues despite attempts by others to interject comments).

Children with ASD process and respond to information in unique ways. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present such as biting, hitting, or head banging. These children may also exhibit some of the following traits.

Language and Communication

  • Difficulty in expressing needs (use of gestures or pointing instead of words)
  • Repetition of words or phrases instead of typical, responsive language
  • Literal interpretation of language
  • Difficulty in understanding nonverbal cues, including facial expressions
  • Not responsive to verbal cues (acting as if deaf although hearing tests in normal range)


  • Lack of social interaction
  • Little or no eye contact
  • No sense or feeling of personal distance from others
  • Inappropriate peer interactions
  • Responses that do not match situations (e.g., over- or under-reaction)

Unique Behaviors

  • Insistence on sameness; resistance to change
  • Tantrums/meltdowns
  • Sustained odd play
  • Special interests or inappropriate attachment to objects (e.g., spins or lines up objects)
  • Stereotyped behaviors, including hand flapping, whole-body rocking, clapping, etc.


  • Lack of awareness of own and others’ feelings
  • Little or no display of affection
  • No real fear of danger

Sensory and Motor Skills

  • Over- or under-sensitivity related to one or more sensory processing systems, including touch, balance, body awareness, sight, hearing, taste, smell
  • Clumsy gross-/fine-motor skills
  • Odd posture or gait
  • Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity