What Symptoms Do All Autistic People Have in Common?

Young adults with autism
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The autism spectrum includes an incredibly wide range of people, with an amazingly broad range of abilities and challenges. If you ask for general information about autism, you're likely to be told: "when you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism." This diversity means that it can be surprisingly difficult to craft a meaningful 30-second description of the disorder. That, however, does not mean that people with autism have nothing in common.

The Breadth of the Autism Spectrum

Symptoms of people with autism range from relatively mild to very severe. In addition, not all people share all of the same symptoms. There is no single autistic personality and no single treatment that is effective for all people with autism. The diagnostic criteria for autism include "qualifiers" including: 

  • With or without accompanying intellectual impairment
  • With or without accompanying language impairment
  • Associated with a known medical or genetic condition or environmental factor

In addition to these qualifiers, there are also symptoms that are not listed in the diagnostic criteria but which are more common among autistic people than among the general population. For example, many (but not all) people with autism have sleep disorders, gastrointestinal issues, mood disorders, and/or seizure disorders.

Because there are so many differences among autistic people, it can be very tough to describe a "typical" person with autism. Here are just a few of the more obvious differences among people on the spectrum:

  • Some people on the spectrum have no spoken language, but others talk a mile a minute.
  • Some are very engaged (often too engaged) with other people, while others would be happy to spend most of their lives in complete solitude.
  • Some have no problem with crowds or noise while others are upset by the buzz of a fluorescent light bulb.
  • Some autistic people are capable of making complex plans and solving multi-faceted problems while others need help thinking through basic tasks of daily life.
  • Some autistic people have aggressive and/or self-aggressive behaviors, while others are gentle and slow to anger.

Symptoms All Autistic People Share

What all individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum have in common are:

  • Significant difficulties in the areas of social communication
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • An over-focus on specific areas of interest
  • Unusual responses to sensory input (sound, light, taste, etc.)

These differences must have been present before age three (though they may not have been obvious at the time), and they are significant enough that they impair the individual's ability to take part in ordinary activities of life. It is very possible to have relatively mild symptoms in one area and severe symptoms in another.

Social Communication Difficulties Across the Spectrum

Social communication is a very broad concept. It incorporates not only the ability to talk, but also the ability to converse, ask and answer questions, send and receive non-verbal body language, intuit hidden meanings buried between the lines, and much more.

Some people with autism have very severe deficits in this area (they can't speak at all, or use spoken language in very limited ways). Others may be able to answer complex academic questions or speak at length about an area of interest but have no idea how to converse with someone who doesn't share their interests. In either case, however, social communication deficits have a significant impact on daily life.

Repetition and Perseveration Across the Spectrum

People with autism like to do the same thing over and over again, in the same way. For some people, that may mean following the same routines, watching the same movies, or talking about the same subject. For others, it may mean flushing the toilet or making the same sound over and over again. In either case, however, repetition and perseveration have a significant negative impact on daily life.

Sensory Challenges Across the Spectrum

People with autism react differently from most people to sensory input. Some people have extreme reactions to certain sounds, smells, etc., and are unable to be in a public space. Others have milder responses. Some prefer quiet and dim lights and avoid touch while others love loud music and crave deep pressure. Either way, for most autistic people, sensory challenges get in the way of enjoying ordinary life experiences.


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