Behavior Characteristics of Autism

Marcelina Hardy, MSEd, BCC
Engaging behavior

Behavior can tell you a lot about a child, especially one who has autism. Autistic children share many of the same behavioral characteristics, making it possible to attribute them to the disorder. These behavioral signs appear in many areas such as sensory processing, communication, socialization, play, and in learning environments. Understanding the behavioral signs in each one of these areas can help you understand the disorder and how it affects the child.

Sensory Processing

A glaring trait of many people on the autism spectrum is difficulty with sensory processing. Nearly everyone can relate to feeling physically uncomfortable due to sensory input. Loud noises, distracting lights, and itchy materials can be very bothersome to anyone but they can be painful for a child with sensory problem.

Some signs of sensory problems can include:

  • Repetitive movements
    • Hand flapping
    • Spinning
    • Sighting (moving with eyes fixed on an object or looking at things very closely)
    • Licking objects
    • Rocking back and forth
    • Flapping objects
  • Reactions

    • Extreme reaction to seemingly benign sensory input
    • Lack of response to seemingly significant sensory input
  • Body Awareness

    • Does not respond to pain appropriately
    • Sits on steps, moving down one at a time rather than stepping
    • Does not step from one surface to another such as stepping from concrete to grass
  • Seeking sensory input
    • Burrowing into pillows
    • Jumping
    • Climbing on furniture

Sensory processing disorder can be confused with autism because individuals who have this condition often engage in the stereotypical repetitive movements often seen in cases of autism. However, other symptoms must be present to meet the diagnostic criteria outlined in the DSM IV.

Behavior Due to Communication Deficits

Communication is a problem for children on the spectrum and this includes more than being a "late talker." Children on the spectrum may not engage in natural communication that is apparent in typical children.

Infants or toddlers may have the following signs:

  • May not cry
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • Do not point or gesture
  • Do not grab items
  • Act out rather than using words
  • Seem to ignore people

Children may exhibit these signs:

  • Do not use functional language
  • Repeat sentences, words or phrases with no apparent purpose

Tantrums Due to Communication

Some children with autism tantrum easily for no apparent reason and this may have something to do with their inability to communicate effectively. According to a study by Dominick et al., mentioned on the Autism Help website, tantrums were found in 2/3 of the participants and 1/3 of them had language impairments.

Signs to Look for in Social Environments

Social blindness is a significant problem for people on the autism spectrum. While children with Aspergers are able to use language for basic communication, they have difficulty processing social cues, both verbal and nonverbal.

Children on the spectrum may:

  • Make inappropriate facial expressions
  • Misunderstand humor
  • Have inappropriate responses to other people's remarks and actions
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Not seem to notice others
  • Avoid playing with peers
  • Obsessively talk about a single topic of interest
  • Fail to recognize other people's emotional states
  • Not recognize feelings behind facial expressions
  • Be shockingly honest

The inability to recognize social cues, body language and facial expressions can significantly interfere with a person's ability to function in the social realm.

How Autistic Children Play

Children learn through play but kids on the autism spectrum have difficulty playing with others appropriately. Other signs include:

  • Plays with parts of toys rather than the entire toy
  • Aligns objects across the floor
  • Becomes agitated when patterns are disrupted
  • Does not use toys as they were designed
  • Does not engage in pretend play (feeding baby doll, talking on a toy telephone)

Some of the problems with play can be due to the child's dependency on routine and order. A child with autism may try to assimilate a safe environment by creating a daily routine to follow. When routines are disrupted, a tantrum may ensue. Problems can also arise when a child has to make unexpected transitions.

Characteristics in Learning Environments

Learning is also an area where children can demonstrate characteristically autistic behavior.

  • Difficulty focusing and paying attention
  • Lack of problem solving abilities
  • Organizational and planning deficits
  • Inability to understand complex or abstract ideas
  • Inability or unwillingness to participate in class
  • Problems with receptive processing
  • Problems demonstrating understanding

Early Intervention Best Helps Your Child

According to the Autism Help website, parents typically notice behavioral signs of autism in their child by age two. Early behavioral intervention can increase the chances of the child improving self-care, social and communication skills, the site advises.

If you see many of the behavior signs of autism in your child, it may be time to contact a medical professional about your concerns. He can give you a complete evaluation and guide you in understanding whether or not your child has autism.

Learn More About Autism

To prepare you further to explain the signs your child may be exhibiting that are characteristic of autism, it may be useful to learn the physical characteristics of autism as well as other symptoms.

Behavior Characteristics of Autism