What is it Like to Have Autism?

People with autism often have difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction, and may engage in repetitive behaviors or have highly specific interests.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
February 13, 2024
min read

Understanding Autism

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that affects individuals in various ways. It is characterized by challenges in social communication and the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors. To gain a comprehensive understanding of autism, it is important to explore what autism is and how it is diagnosed.

What is Autism?

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a lifelong condition that impacts a person's social interaction, communication, and behavior. Individuals with autism may experience difficulties in understanding and interpreting social cues, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it manifests differently in each individual. Some individuals with autism may have exceptional abilities in certain areas, while others may face significant challenges in multiple areas of functioning. It's important to recognize that autism is a part of a person's identity and not a disease or something that needs to be "cured."

Prevalence and Diagnosis

The prevalence of autism has been increasing over the years, with more individuals being diagnosed. According to recent studies, approximately 1 in 36 children in the United States has been identified with autism. It is more common in boys than girls, with a ratio of around 4:1.

Diagnosing autism involves a comprehensive evaluation by healthcare professionals, typically including observations, interviews, and assessments.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is commonly used to diagnose autism. It outlines specific criteria related to social communication challenges, restricted and repetitive behaviors, and the presence of symptoms in early childhood.

Understanding what autism is and how it is diagnosed is the first step in supporting individuals with autism. By recognizing the unique characteristics and challenges associated with autism, we can create a more inclusive society that embraces and supports individuals on the autism spectrum.

Free Photo of a Boy Listening in Headphones Stock Photo

Characteristics of Autism

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by various challenges in social communication and the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors. Understanding these key characteristics is fundamental in comprehending the experiences of individuals with autism.

Social Communication Challenges

Individuals with autism often experience difficulties in social communication. They may struggle with understanding and using verbal and nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and gestures.

These challenges can result in difficulties in initiating and maintaining conversations, interpreting sarcasm or figurative language, and understanding social norms and expectations.

To better illustrate the social communication challenges faced by individuals with autism, here are a few examples:

Social Communication Challenges

  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Challenges in understanding and responding appropriately to social cues
  • Limited use of gestures or facial expressions
  • Difficulty initiating and maintaining conversations
  • Literal interpretation of language

Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors

Restricted and repetitive behaviors are another key characteristic of autism. These behaviors involve a narrow range of interests and repetitive actions or routines. They can manifest in various ways, such as:

  • Sensory behaviors: Individuals with autism may engage in repetitive movements, such as hand-flapping, rocking, or spinning, to seek sensory input or self-soothe.
  • Rigid routines: Many individuals with autism thrive on predictability and routine. Any disruption to their established routines can cause distress and anxiety.
  • Special interests: Individuals with autism may develop intense and specific interests in particular topics or objects. These interests often become a significant focus of their attention and engagement.
  • Resistance to change: Changes in the environment or unexpected transitions can be challenging for individuals with autism. They may exhibit resistance to change and display distressing behaviors as a result.

Understanding and recognizing these restricted and repetitive behaviors is crucial in providing effective support and interventions for individuals with autism.

By acknowledging the social communication challenges and the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors, we can gain a deeper understanding of autism and its impact on individuals' lives.

It is important to approach autism with empathy, respect, and a commitment to creating inclusive environments that embrace the unique strengths and challenges of individuals on the autism spectrum.

Sensory Sensitivities

Individuals with autism often experience differences in sensory processing, which can manifest as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to certain sensory stimuli. Understanding these sensory sensitivities is crucial in providing appropriate support and creating a comfortable environment for individuals with autism.


Hypersensitivity, also known as sensory overresponsivity, refers to an increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli. This means that individuals with autism may have stronger reactions to sensory input that others may find tolerable or even unnoticeable. Common examples of hypersensitivity include:

Sensory Domain Examples of Hypersensitivity Symptoms
  • Covering ears in response to loud noises
  • Being overwhelmed by background noise
  • Sensitivity to bright lights or fluorescent lighting
  • Difficulty with visually cluttered environments
  • Discomfort or aversion to certain textures or clothing materials
  • Avoidance of hugs or physical touch
  • Strong aversion to certain smells
  • Easily overwhelmed by strong scents
  • Limited food preferences due to taste or texture sensitivities
  • Discomfort or aversion to certain flavors

It's important to create a sensory-friendly environment for individuals with hypersensitivity. This may involve reducing excessive noise, using softer lighting, providing comfortable clothing options, and minimizing strong odors or flavors.


Hyposensitivity, also referred to as sensory underresponsivity, involves a reduced sensitivity to sensory input. Individuals with hyposensitivity may require more intense sensory stimulation to register and respond to sensory stimuli. Some common examples of hyposensitivity include:

Sensory Domain Examples of Hyposensitivity Symptoms
  • Difficulty filtering out background noise
  • Seeking out loud sounds or noises
  • Needing bright or intense visual stimuli for engagement
  • Fascination with spinning objects or lights
  • Seeking out deep pressure or intense physical touch
  • Not noticing when hands or face are dirty or messy
  • Difficulty detecting or identifying smells
  • Engaging in smelling objects or people
  • Craving strong or spicy flavors
  • Chewing or mouthing non-food objects

Understanding and accommodating for hyposensitivity is important to ensure that individuals with autism can access and engage with their environment appropriately. Providing opportunities for sensory input, such as tactile activities or sensory toys, can be beneficial for those with hyposensitivity.

By recognizing and addressing sensory sensitivities, we can better understand the experiences of individuals with autism and create supportive environments that promote their well-being and comfort.

Autism and Cognitive Abilities

Individuals with autism have unique cognitive profiles that encompass both strengths and challenges. Understanding these cognitive abilities is crucial for providing appropriate support and interventions.

Let's explore the strengths and challenges associated with autism, as well as the variability in cognitive profiles among individuals on the autism spectrum.

Strengths and Challenges

Autism is characterized by a wide range of strengths and challenges across various cognitive domains. While each individual is unique, here are some common strengths and challenges often observed in individuals with autism:

Strengths Challenges
Detail-oriented thinking Difficulty with flexible thinking and adapting to change
Strong visual and spatial skills Executive function difficulties, such as planning and organizing
Exceptional memory in specific areas of interest Challenges in understanding abstract concepts and social nuances
Attention to detail Difficulty with multitasking and shifting attention
Analytical thinking Challenges in generalizing skills to different contexts

It's important to recognize and nurture these strengths while providing support to overcome the associated challenges. By focusing on the strengths, individuals with autism can develop their potential and excel in areas where they have a natural aptitude.

Variability in Cognitive Profiles

One of the key aspects of autism is the significant variability in cognitive profiles among individuals on the spectrum. While some individuals may have exceptional abilities in specific areas, others may experience more pronounced challenges. This variability highlights the importance of recognizing and accommodating the unique needs of each individual.

The cognitive profile of someone with autism can vary across several domains, including intellectual abilities, language skills, and executive functions.

Some individuals on the autism spectrum may have average or above-average intelligence, while others may have intellectual disabilities. Similarly, some individuals may have strong verbal skills, while others may struggle with expressive or receptive language.

The variability in cognitive profiles underscores the importance of personalized approaches to support and interventions. By understanding an individual's specific cognitive strengths and challenges, interventions can be tailored to address their unique needs and promote their overall development.

Understanding the cognitive abilities of individuals with autism is crucial for creating supportive environments, providing effective interventions, and promoting their overall well-being.

By recognizing and nurturing their strengths while addressing the associated challenges, we can help individuals with autism reach their full potential and lead fulfilling lives.

Autism and Emotional Well-being

When it comes to autism, emotional well-being plays a crucial role in the overall experience of individuals on the spectrum. Understanding the emotional aspects of autism can help parents and caregivers provide the necessary support.

In this section, we will explore two key areas related to autism and emotional well-being: emotional regulation and the heightened risk of anxiety and depression.

Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation refers to the ability to manage and control one's emotions in different situations. Individuals with autism may face challenges in effectively regulating their emotions. They may experience difficulty identifying and expressing their emotions, leading to emotional outbursts or meltdowns.

Supporting individuals with autism in emotional regulation involves providing strategies and tools to help them recognize and manage their emotions. These may include visual aids, social stories, and sensory-based techniques.

By creating a structured and predictable environment, parents and caregivers can help individuals with autism feel more secure and better equipped to manage their emotions.

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression are common co-occurring conditions in individuals with autism. The challenges associated with social interactions, sensory sensitivities, and difficulties in understanding and navigating social cues can contribute to increased levels of anxiety and depression.

It is important for parents and caregivers to be vigilant and recognize the signs of anxiety and depression in individuals with autism. These signs may include increased irritability, withdrawal from social activities, changes in sleep patterns, and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.

Seeking professional support from therapists or psychologists experienced in working with individuals on the autism spectrum is crucial in addressing anxiety and depression. Therapeutic interventions may include cognitive-behavioral therapy, social skills training, and medication if deemed necessary by a healthcare professional.

Understanding and addressing the emotional well-being of individuals with autism is vital for their overall quality of life. By providing appropriate support and interventions, parents and caregivers can help individuals with autism navigate their emotions more effectively and reduce the impact of anxiety and depression.

Remember, every individual with autism is unique, and their emotional experiences may vary. Patience, empathy, and a supportive environment can go a long way in promoting emotional well-being and enhancing the overall quality of life for individuals on the autism spectrum.

Support and Interventions

When it comes to supporting individuals with autism, early intervention, therapies and treatments, and creating supportive environments play a crucial role in promoting their overall well-being and development.

Early Intervention

Early intervention refers to the support and services provided to children with autism at a young age, typically before they enter school. This approach focuses on addressing developmental delays and providing targeted interventions to improve communication, social skills, and behavior.

Research has shown that early intervention can lead to significant improvements in various areas of development for children with autism. It can help enhance their communication skills, promote social interactions, and reduce challenging behaviors.

Early intervention programs often involve a multidisciplinary team of professionals, including speech therapists, occupational therapists, and behavior analysts, who work together to create individualized treatment plans.

Therapies and Treatments

There are various therapies and treatments available to support individuals with autism in their development and daily functioning. These interventions aim to address specific challenges associated with autism and help individuals reach their fullest potential.

  1. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): ABA is a widely recognized and evidence-based therapy that focuses on teaching and reinforcing positive behaviors while reducing challenging behaviors. It involves breaking down skills into manageable steps and providing systematic instruction and reinforcement.
  2. Speech and Language Therapy: Speech and language therapy aims to improve communication skills, including speech production, comprehension, and social communication. Therapists use techniques such as visual aids, sign language, and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices to support individuals with communication difficulties.
  3. Occupational Therapy (OT): OT focuses on developing skills for daily living, fine motor coordination, sensory integration, and self-regulation. Occupational therapists work with individuals to improve their independence and participation in everyday activities.
  4. Social Skills Training: Social skills training helps individuals with autism develop social interaction and communication skills. It involves teaching appropriate social behaviors, understanding nonverbal cues, and fostering social problem-solving skills through structured activities and role-playing.

Creating Supportive Environments

Creating supportive environments is essential for individuals with autism to thrive and reach their potential. Here are some strategies to create a supportive environment:

  1. Structure and Routine: Establishing predictable routines and providing clear expectations can help individuals with autism feel more secure and reduce anxiety. Visual schedules and timers can assist in creating a structured environment.
  2. Sensory-Friendly Spaces: Individuals with autism often have sensory sensitivities. Creating sensory-friendly spaces with appropriate lighting, sound levels, and comfortable seating can help reduce sensory overload and promote a calmer environment.
  3. Communication Supports: Using visual supports, such as visual schedules, social stories, and visual aids, can aid in communication and understanding. Providing clear and concise instructions and allowing additional processing time can also enhance communication.

By providing early intervention, utilizing effective therapies and treatments, and creating supportive environments, individuals with autism can receive the necessary support to thrive and lead fulfilling lives. It's essential to tailor interventions to individual needs and collaborate with professionals to ensure the best outcomes for individuals with autism.


In conclusion, having autism can be challenging, but it is also a unique experience that comes with its own strengths and abilities. People with autism have a lot to offer the world and can make valuable contributions to society.

If you or someone you know has autism, it is important to seek out support and resources. With the right help and understanding, people with autism can lead fulfilling and rewarding lives.


steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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