14 Autism Spectrum Disorders

Paula Lombardi

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Our nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines traumatic autism as…

… a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term autism does not apply if the child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance.

Center for Parent Information and Resources (2017). Categories of Disability under IDEA, Newark, NJ, Author. Retrieved 3.28.19 from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/categories/

The following text is mostly an excerpt from Boundless.com (n.d.) Psychology/Textbooks/Boundless Psychology/Psychological Disorders/Neurodevelopmental Disorders/Autism Spectrum Disorder, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Defining Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) describes a range of conditions classified as neuro-developmental disorders in the fifth revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5, published in 2013, redefined the autism spectrum to encompass the previous (DSM-IV-TR) diagnoses of autism, Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and childhood disintegrative disorder. These disorders are characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors and interests, sensory issues, and in some cases, cognitive delays.

Asperger syndrome was distinguished from autism in the earlier DSM-IV by the lack of delay or deviance in early language development. Additionally, individuals diagnosed with Asperger syndrome did not have significant cognitive delays. PDD-NOS was considered “subthreshold autism” and “atypical autism” because it was often characterized by milder symptoms of autism or symptoms in only one domain (such as social difficulties). In the DSM-5, both of these diagnoses have been subsumed into autism spectrum disorder.

Autism spectrum disorders are considered to be on a spectrum because each individual with ASD expresses the disorder uniquely and has varying degrees of functionality. Many have above-average intellectual abilities and excel in visual skills, music, math, and the arts, while others have significant disabilities and are unable to live independently. About 25 percent of individuals with ASD are nonverbal; however, they may learn to communicate using other means.

DSM Diagnostic Criteria

The DSM-5 characterizes ASD by two primary symptoms: impairments in social communication and fixated or restricted behaviors or interests and associated features. These deficits are present in early childhood (often by age 3) and lead to clinically significant functional impairment. Previously, in the DSM-IV-TR, impairments in social interactions and impairments in communication were considered two separate symptoms; however, these have been combined in the DSM-5. The restriction of onset age has also been loosened from three years of age (as per the DSM-IV-TR) to the “early developmental period,” with a note that symptoms may manifest later when demands exceed capabilities.

The changes in the DSM-5 diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders included three levels of severity. These broad levels help to clarify where the person with ASD fits along the spectrum from mild to severe. These levels are: Level 1: Requiring Support, Level 2: Requiring Substaintial Support, and Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support. (Gilmore, 2019).

The image below from Wikimedia Commons show the three functional levels of autism from an autistic perspective.

3 Levels of ASD

Social Communication Symptoms

Social impairments in children with autism can be characterized by a distinctive lack of intuition about others. Unusual social development becomes apparent early in childhood. Infants with ASD show less attention to social stimuli, smile and look at others less often, and respond less to their own name. Toddlers with ASD differ more strikingly from social norms; for example, they may show less eye contact and turn-taking and may not have the ability to use simple movements to express themselves. Individuals with severe forms of ASD do not develop enough natural speech to meet their daily communication needs.

Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors

Children with ASD may exhibit repetitive or restricted behavior, including:

  • Stereotypy—repetitive movement, such as hand flapping, head rolling, or body rocking.
  • Compulsive behavior—exhibiting intention to follow rules, such as arranging objects in stacks or lines.
  • Sameness—resistance to change; for example, insisting that the furniture not be moved or sticking to an unvarying pattern of daily activities.
  • Restricted behavior—limits in focus, interest, or activity, such as preoccupation with a single television program, toy, or game.
  • Self-injury—movements that injure or can injure the person, such as eye poking, skin picking, hand biting, and head banging.


While specific causes of ASD have yet to be found, many risk factors have been identified in the research literature that may contribute to its development. These risk factors include genetics, prenatal and perinatal factors, neuroanatomical abnormalities, and environmental factors. It is possible to identify general risk factors, but much more difficult to pinpoint specific factors.


ASD affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; thus, it is categorized as a neuro-developmental disorder. The results of family and twin studies suggest that genetic factors play a role in the etiology of ASD and other pervasive developmental disorders. Studies have consistently found that the prevalence of ASD in siblings of children with ASD is approximately 15 to 30 times greater than the rate in the general population. In addition, research suggests that there is a much higher concordance rate among monozygotic (identical) twins compared to dizygotic (fraternal) twins. It appears that there is no single gene that can account for ASD; instead, there seem to be multiple genes involved, each of which is a risk factor for part of the autism syndrome through various groups. It is unclear whether ASD is explained more by rare mutations or by combinations of common genetic variants.


There is no known cure for ASD, and treatment tends to focus on management of symptoms. The main goals when treating children with ASD are to lessen associated deficits and family distress and to increase quality of life and functional independence. No single treatment is best, and treatment is typically tailored to the individual person’s needs. Intensive, sustained special-education programs and behavior therapy early in life can help children acquire self-care, social, and job skills. The most widely used therapy is applied behavior analysis (ABA); other available approaches include developmental models, structured teaching, speech and language therapy, social skills therapy, and occupational therapy.

There has been increasing attention to the development of evidenced-based interventions for young children with ASD. Unresearched alternative therapies have also been implemented (for example, vitamin therapy and acupuncture). Although evidence-based interventions for children with ASD vary in their methods, many adopt a psychoeducational approach to enhancing cognitive, communication, and social skills while minimizing behaviors that are thought to be problematic.

The following section is an excerpt from: Pilewskie, A, (2009). Some Ideas for Instructing Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Ohio State University, Retrieved 3.29.19 http://www.oercommons.org/courses/some-ideas-for-instructing-students-with-autism-spectrum-disorders/view This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

autism awareness Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by impairments in communication and social interactions, and by repetitive and stereotypic behaviors. Other characteristics might include unusual responses to sensory experiences, difficulty with transitions, and resistance to change.

The term spectrum disorder means that the disorder can present with mild to severe characteristics. Individuals with autism can be:

  • highly intelligent or cognitively delayed;
  • highly verbal or functionally nonverbal;
  • “oddly” sociable or have no social interactions whatsoever;
  • singularly, almost obsessively, focused on one interest or appear to have no interest at all in their environment;
  • either over- or under- reactive to sensory input.

Students with ASD can present some particular challenges for educators. No single individual with ASD appears characteristically just like another. In addition, social interactions and communication between students with ASD and their peers and teachers may be difficult.

Stanley I. Greenspan, a pediatric neuropsychiatrist who specializes in autism spectrum disorders, refers to autism simply as a “disorder of relating and communicating.”

Often students with ASD have a difficult time processing language auditorily, especially metaphors, innuendoes, and jokes. These students will struggle in a classroom environment in which much of the information is presented verbally. However, these same students sometimes have great visual memory, which can be used productively in the classroom. Students with ASD (as well as visual learners) will benefit from instruction delivered in picture icons or written sequentially.

General Teaching Strategies

Teachers can visually deliver instruction in the following ways: (there are general teaching strategies)

  • Use multisensory delivery. Dramatic presentations, comics, PowerPoint presentations, overheads, movies, and online resources involve both auditory and visual processing.
  • Use color. Color-coded notebooks or colored markers and pens can help students differentiate subjects. Color can also be used to highlight directions.
  • Use visual cues. Schedules, calendars, timetables, and lists of items to complete can be placed on students’ desks. These can take a variety of forms: written, pictures or symbols, and photos. Alphabet and number lines or mnemonic devices also provide visual cues for students. Bulletin boards, banners, posters, and flashcards reinforce content area knowledge.
  • Use guided notes or other handouts to help students stay focused during verbal instruction.
  • When information must be presented verbally, teachers can support students with ASD when they:
    • Demonstrate/model/act out instructions; use hand signals.
    • Complete the first examples with students.
    • Repeat instructions after allowing 10 seconds for processing time; speak slowly and clearly, modify tone and pace.
    • Put instructions in the same place always.
    • Simplify; analyze tasks and break them into small steps.
    • Provide extra time and resources.
    • Involve students in presentations.
    • Team teach.

    Students with ASD might also need a variety of adapted materials. Many of these adaptations fit the definition of an “assistive technology”

    • low-vocabulary books, audio and video tapes,
    • AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices and voice output devices,
    • talking calculators,
    • educational software designed for struggling learners or children with ASD,
    • manipulatives,
    • different types of paper – textured, graph, lined papers (raised lines, colored lines and mid-lines),
    • sticky notes,
    • a variety of writing utensils: golf pencils, magic markers, highlighters, chalk holders, pencil grips, and stamps and stamp pads,
    • slant writing boards, recipe stands,
    • desk organizers

    Many students with ASD are not “fond” of writing, whether they are engaged in the mechanical process itself or the slow process of translating oral language into the written word. Because so much of the curriculum output expected from students includes written work, it is imperative to have alternatives for students with ASD to demonstrate their knowledge of what has been presented in a lesson.

    The following are some alternative ideas for students with ASD to demonstrate their knowledge: (general teaching strategies)

    • oral tests
    • PowerPoint presentations
    • dramatic presentations
    • dioramas
    • graphs and diagrams
    • comic strips
    • storyboards
    • flow charts
    • sign language

    Special education teachers, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists can be a source of ideas for other instructional methods to support students in demonstrating knowledge of specific curriculum and content standards.

  • Another area of concern for students with ASD is social skills – the challenge of relating to others in an acceptable manner. The social skills impairment of individuals with ASD significantly differentiates them from students with other disabilities. Instruction in these skills is imperative for students on the autism spectrum to communicate in class, build friendships, and participate in the community. Social skills impairments can be manifested in a number of ways, including:
    • lack of reciprocity, or the give-and-take of conversation,
    • inability to initiate conversation,
    • lack of spontaneous sharing of interests and enjoyment,
    • inability to take the perspective of others,
    • lack of appropriate social pragmatics (i.e., proximity to others, body language, vocal tone, interruptions, and responses to facial and other physical gestures),
    • inability to understand humor, sarcasm and innuendo,
    • monologues on the individuals’ specific interests.

    Social skills seem to “just come naturally” to typically developing children. But these skills need to be taught directly and practiced often by students with ASD.

    There are several proven methods that can support social skills instruction. Often these skills are taught by speech-language therapists and intervention specialists. Some of these techniques and methods include: (bold faced strategies are also considered evidenced based practices)

    • social stories,
    • role-playing,
    • video modeling,
    • labeling and recognition of emotions in self and others,
    • structured small-group instruction, including typical peers for review of learning objectives, often involving games, role-playing, and discussions (example: simple peer mediation role-playing),
    • informal groups, such as “friends groups” or “lunch bunch,” where social skills can be applied in natural settings and spontaneously facilitated for reinforcement or correction,
    • structured outdoor or indoor recess to apply social skills with or without facilitation and to measure for generalization of skills in a large setting.

    Many of these skills can be taught for whole-class instruction. For example, as a special education consultant for a student with Asperger Syndrome (now referred to as Level 1 autism) included in a general education fifth-grade classroom, I gave direct instruction in conflict management to that student and a couple of his classroom peers. I used scripted “conflicts” that the students role-played.

    The students were given a simple sequential procedure for conflict management. After learning the procedure and acting out several scripts, they were given written prompts for which they had to come up with their own dialogue. Once the three students became proficient in the methods, we took the role-play, scripts, and prompts to the whole fifth-grade class, where all the students participated in learning the conflict management procedures. We used the same methods, but in a shorter amount of time. All students, including the student with ASD, benefited from this method of instruction. This is an example of how social skills instruction can be taught, and generalized to a classroom setting.

    This article has just touched on some ideas to use in the areas of communication and social skills for students with ASD. It is always necessary to read a student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) to determine the best approaches to facilitate instruction for him or her in the classroom.

(Pilewskie, 2009)

Adapted from : Dillon SR, Adams D, Goudy L, Bittner M and McNamara S (2017) Evaluating Exercise as Evidence-Based Practice for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Front. Public Health 4:290. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2016.00290

Evidence-Based Practices

While the exact definition may vary between professions, EBP can generally be defined as an instructional strategy, intervention, or teaching program that is grounded in scientifically based research (21). Within legislation, the Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act of 2004 lacks a definition, but does imply that teachers use EBPs, mandating instructional interventions grounded in “scientifically based research,” when teaching students with disabilities (22). Conversely, the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) (3), after which the reauthorization of IDEA may be modeled, does clearly define evidence-based as:

an activity, strategy, or intervention that—(i) demonstrates a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes or other relevant outcomes based on—(I) strong evidence from at least 1 well-designed and well-implemented experimental study; (II) moderate evidence from at least 1 well-designed and well-implemented quasi-experimental study; or (III) promising evidence from at least 1 well-designed and well-implemented correlational study with statistical controls for selection bias; or (ii) (I) demonstrates a rationale based on high-quality research findings or positive evaluation that such activity, strategy, or intervention is likely to improve student outcomes or other relevant outcomes; and (II) includes ongoing efforts to examine the effects of such activity, strategy, or intervention (22).

Go to the course for:

  • Disability Summary Overview for ASD for specific instructions on developing your ASD summary.
  • Disability Summary Readings by Category for additional reading  needed to develop your ASD summary.

Supplementary Resources for Extended Learning

Jorgenson, C.M. et al, (n.d). Teaching Students with Autism. Supporting Belonging/Participation/Learning, National Education Association (NEA). Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/Autism_Guide_final.pdf  (96 page teacher guide)

AFIRM Modules, Autism Focused Intervention Resources and Modules, 

The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder

Image Attribution

Autism Awareness, https://pixabay.com/illustrations/autism-ribbon-awareness-disease-1417942/ Pixabay License

The image below from Wikimedia Commons showing the three functional levels of autism from an autistic perspective. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Three_Levels_of_Autism_1.png


Gilmore, H. (2019). Levels of Autism: Understanding the Different Types of ASD. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 29, 2020, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/child-therapist/2019/11/levels-of-autism-understanding-the-different-types-of-asd/

Optional /Extended readings

Domings, Y, Crevecoeur Y. Ralabate, P. , (2014)  Universal Design for Learning: Meeting the Needs of Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Retrieved from http://archive.brookespublishing.com/documents/boser-udl-for-students-with-autism.pdf

The IRIS Center. (2016). Autism spectrum disorder (part 2): Evidence-based practices. Retrieved from https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/asd2/  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

















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Autism Spectrum Disorders by Paula Lombardi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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