Characteristics associated with autism

These fall into four major categories:

  • Communication characteristics
  • Social interaction characteristics
  • Unusual behavior characteristics
  • Learning characteristics

Other characteristics of behavior and learning of students with autism can be categorized as:

  • unusual patterns of attention
  • unusual responses to sensory stimuli
  • anxiety


All people with autism experience language and communication difficulties, although there are considerable differences in language ability among individuals. 

Implications for instruction

Effective programs for students with autism and other pervasive developmental disorders include comprehensive communication assessment and intervention. Instruction should emphasize paying attention, imitating, comprehending, and using language in play and social interaction. Communication goals should emphasize the functional use of language and communication in various settings.

Unusual behavior

People with autism often demonstrate unusual and distinctive behaviors, including:

  • Restricted range of interests, and a preoccupation with one specific interest or object
  • Inflexible adherence to a non-functional routine
  • stereotypic and repetitive motor mannerisms, such as hand flapping, finger flicking, rocking, spinning, walking on tiptoes, spinning objects
  • Preoccupation with parts of objects
  • Fascination with movement, such as the spinning of a fan, or turning wheels on toys
  • Insistence on sameness and resistance to change
  • Unusual responses to sensory stimuli

Roles and responsibilities

Effective planning for supporting students with autism and their families is important. The student’s needs for support may go beyond the mandate of the school system. The following roles will be important in this planning:

School principals— the duties of principals include implementing education programs for all students in the school; assigning staff, allocating resources within a school; and ensuring that teachers have the information they need to work with students assigned to a class or program. Principals can facilitate the collaboration of school-based teams in supporting students with special needs. 

Classroom teachers—Teachers are responsible for the education programs of all students in their classes. When a student with autism needs specialized programming and instruction, teachers need to work collaboratively with available specialists to ensure that there is a well planned, co-ordinated approach. 

Specialist teachers—Teachers with special training in working with students who have complex special needs support classroom teachers.

Specialist teachers have expertise in behavior management and development of social skills. In some cases, the specialist teacher may be a resource teacher with special training in behavior or communication.

For some students with autism, the resource teacher may provide direct instruction, while in other cases; specialist teachers provide consultative support for classroom teachers who have a student with autism in the regular class. 

Speech and language pathologists (SLPs)—Speech and language pathologists have specialized training in assessing communication needs and designing programs to improve communication. Because communication difficulties are such a significant problem for students who have autism, SLPs can play a critically important role in the collaborative effort to decide on appropriate goals and strategies for meeting the needs of individual students.

Parentsthe families of students have knowledge and experience that is valuable in developing an effective program at school. This knowledge is of critical importance in answering the fundamental question: What skills are most important for my child to develop in order to enhance his or her life now and in the future?

Parents have worked out ways of communicating and managing the student at home that can be helpful in the school setting. When families and schools work together to make the student’s program compatible at home and school, the student benefits from the resulting consistency. 

Teachers’ assistantsIn some cases, teachers’ assistants are assigned to work in classes with students with autism. Across British Columbia, this educational employee group is described by a variety of titles, including teachers’ assistants, paraprofessional workers, learner assistants, student assistants, or special education assistant.

Teachers are expected to design programs for students with special needs; however, teachers’ assistants play a key role in many programs for students with autism, performing a variety of functions from personal care to assisting with the instructional program. Working under the supervision of teachers or principals, teachers’ assistants are often involved in shaping appropriate behaviors, developing independent living skills, facilitating interactions with others, or stimulating communication.

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