Last updated: 03 Mar 2020

Autism is an example of neurological diversity, or neurodiversity.

Strengths: Weaknesses:
Memory Empathy
Active learning Passive learning
Attention to detail Working to approximations
Direct communications Indirect communications

Social communication and interaction: people on the autistic spectrum may communicate differently from neurotypical people. A minority do not speak. Neurotypical people learned through social interaction, from childhood.

Eye contact may be uncomfortable or difficult for an autistic person. “I can actually listen better if I don’t make eye contact. It’s an autism saying.”

A person with autism may find it difficult to ‘read’ emotions and people’s facial expressions. They may find it difficult to ‘read’ social cues, for example when to speak, when to stop speaking, when a conversation is over, how close to stand to someone.

People with autism tend to think literally: however, neurotypical people do not always speak literally. So, from an autistic person’s view, neurotypical people can be hard to understand and seem very odd at times.

Special interests: in our society, if an autistic person has a special interest in, say, UFOs or train timetables, this may be seen as eccentric or an unhealthy obsession but a non-autistic person’s obsession with, say, boy bands or football teams is usually considered perfectly normal.

Executive function: these are abilities that enable people to translate motivation into action to:

  • start doing something;
  • change what they are doing;
  • stop doing something once started;
  • manage time.

People with autism may have impaired executive function.

Motor function: people with autism may have impaired motor function, affecting balance, movement and coordination.

Sensory sensitivity: those on the autistic spectrum may be intensely sensitive (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hyposensitive) to one or more sensory stimuli – for example, heat, cold, sound, light, dark, textures, smells or pain.

Sensory overload: for many autistic people, the constant bombardment of sound, light, colours, patterns, numbers, temperatures, textures, smells or feelings can become too much.

Self-stimulatory behaviours (‘stimming’): many autistic people engage in habitual, repetitive movements that provide comfort and/or stimulation – for example, rocking, spinning, jumping or skipping.

Myths and facts

Beware of stereotypes; they can overlook people’s individuality, and lead to mocking and bullying.

People on the autistic spectrum are often thought to be unable to empathise. However, it may be more accurate to say that autistic people empathise differently from the way that neurotypical people do. One theory is that autistic people lack ‘cognitive empathy’ (the ability to predict others’ intentions), but have ‘affective empathy’ (the ability to share others’ feelings) and ‘compassionate empathy’ (the desire to help others).

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