What is Autism and how does it look like?
Young girl with headphones on standing up and looking off camera towards the right.

Individuals with Autism, also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – although we avoid using the term “disorder” on this website – display unique developmental patterns compared to those without Autism. They exhibit distinctive ways of thinking, moving, interacting, sensing, and processing that might not conform to conventional expectations.

While each person is unique, Autistic individuals tend to differ from their non-Autistic counterparts in the following areas:

Socialisation and communication, encompassing how they establish connections, form and comprehend friendships and relationships, and employ speech and body language.

Cognition and processing, covering how they perceive patterns and associations, engage in imagination and play, experience and express their senses, emotions, and executive functioning, as well as the development of their brains.

These differences may manifest differently in children and adults.

Socialisation and communication


Often, one of the initial indications that a child might be Autistic is the distinct development of their language and social skills compared to typically developing children. When it comes to socialising and communicating, an Autistic child may:

  1. Enjoy solitary play as much as (or more than) playing with others;
  2. Engage in play that may seem unusual, such as lining up toys, categorising toys, or examining various aspects of toys;
  3. Seek friends with similar interests, regardless of age differences;
  4. Require accommodations for verbal communication, or use speech less frequently or fluently than other children. This is referred to as “expressive language”;
  5. Favour highly structured social interactions, like gaming;
  6. Need additional time for processing speech, known as “receptive language”;
  7. Exhibit frequent echolalia, which involves the repetition or “echoing” of phrases or words;
  8. Display atypical social interest, which might include avoiding eye contact or pointing to draw attention;
  9. Employ stimming behaviours, like flapping, jumping, or spinning, to convey emotions and communicate, such as “happy flapping” to express joy.

This list is not exhaustive, and each child’s developmental journey is unique. Their experience will differ from those of other Autistic and non-Autistic children.

These variations in Autistic children’s socialising and communication are neither “good” nor “bad”; they simply represent Autistic ways of engaging with the world and others. Autistic children do not lack “social skills”; they may lack non-Autistic social skills and instead demonstrate innate, Autistic social skills.


Autistic adults often exhibit non-traditional communication styles, both in expressing themselves and in receiving and interpreting communication. In terms of socialising and communicating, an Autistic adult may:

  1. Favour honest, literal, and straightforward language and messages, focusing on profound subjects rather than superficial “small talk”;
  2. Enjoy “infodumping” or sharing detailed information on a passion or area of expertise;
  3. Display unconventional body language, such as atypical eye contact, body positioning, and gestures;
  4. Prefer highly structured social interactions, such as online gaming;
  5. Develop meaningful online friendships, often more than in-person connections;
  6. Employ echolalia, which involves repeating or “echoing” phrases or words, like quoting TV shows, song lyrics, or memes;
  7. Rely heavily on pre-prepared scripts or messages to conform to expectations and minimise potential misunderstandings;
  8. Use alternative methods of communication, including gestures, sign language, or Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC), which can range from high-tech devices like iPad apps to low-tech tools like picture boards;
  9. Seek friends with similar interests, values, and communication styles, regardless of age differences;
  10. Feel more at ease around other Autistic or neurodivergent individuals.

These differences may not be apparent in all Autistic adults you encounter, as many have learned to “mask” or camouflage their innate Autistic social skills over time. Masking, whether conscious or unconscious, is often a survival mechanism to increase the chances of feeling safe and included. However, masking can take a significant mental health toll on the Autistic person.

The distinctions in how Autistic adults socialise and communicate are neither “good” nor “bad”; they simply represent Autistic ways of engaging with the world and others. Autistic adults do not lack “social skills”; they may lack non-Autistic social skills and instead exhibit natural, Autistic social skills.

Cognition and processing


The brain development of Autistic children differs from that of their typically developing peers of the same age. Some of these differences involve how Autistic children interpret sensory input and engage with their interests. In terms of thinking and processing, Autistic children may:

  1. Exhibit notable variations in processing information, including sensory stimuli. For most Autistic children, sensory processing differences involve complex and atypical responses to sensory input across the five primary senses, as well as the vestibular/movement, proprioceptive/body awareness, and interoceptive/internal bodily signals systems;
  2. Possess numerous, intense interests that can be all-consuming, even if they are short-lived;
  3. Be sensory seeking (pursuing specific sensory input), sensory avoiding (also called sensory defensive, or evading particular sensory input), or a combination of both;
  4. Have a single, enduring interest that encompasses all aspects of play, enjoyment, and learning;
  5. Demonstrate distinct sensory preferences in their experience or reaction to food.

This list is not exhaustive, and each child’s developmental path is unique, resulting in different experiences for both Autistic and non-Autistic children.

These differences in Autistic children’s thinking are neither “good” nor “bad”; they simply represent Autistic ways of engaging with the world and others. Autistic children do not lack “processing skills”; they may lack non-Autistic processing skills and instead exhibit innate, Autistic processing skills.


Autistic adults are likely to exhibit a distinct way of processing information, which can influence how they understand and communicate information about themselves and the world. In terms of thinking and processing, an Autistic adult might:

  1. Be an “orthogonal thinker” (drawing on seemingly unrelated elements to inspire new perceptions and ideas, as opposed to “linear thinkers”);
  2. Display great attention to detail or a desire to focus on the details – known as “bottom-up thinking,” meaning they prefer to understand details clearly first to define the big picture, rather than the reverse;
  3. Process and comprehend information very literally;
  4. Possess defined, specific, and highly focused interests, often called “special interests” or SPINs within the Autistic community;
  5. Be capable of “hyperfocus” on a task or process, and/or experience difficulty maintaining attention on required tasks or organising thoughts and actions, unless they can “hyperfocus”;
  6. Encounter differences in transitioning; Autistic adults may find it challenging to begin something but equally difficult to stop once they start, especially if the task or process is not “finished” or “complete”;
  7. Organise their life into specific, predictable routines or patterns of activities;
  8. Rapidly and effortlessly notice patterns in the world around them;
  9. Exhibit unusual responses to sensory stimuli compared to their non-Autistic peers, which might include seeking sensory input (e.g., specific touch or movement) or avoiding sensory input (e.g., smells, noises, textures);
  10. Experience co-occurring ways of thinking, such as alexithymia (differences in identifying/communicating emotions), aphantasia (differences in visualising/imagining), or dyscalculia (differences in understanding number-based concepts);
  11. Face disruptions to their ability to self-regulate and process information, depending on their changing environment or sensory needs (e.g., some Autistic adults describe feeling unable to think when their environment is too bright or too loud).

These differences in Autistic adults’ way of thinking are neither “good” nor “bad”; they simply represent Autistic ways of engaging with the world and others. Autistic adults do not lack “processing skills”; they may lack non-Autistic processing skills and instead exhibit innate, Autistic processing skills

Communication tips

Navigating communication with Autistic individuals can sometimes be challenging for those who are unfamiliar with their unique communication styles. However, understanding and adapting to these styles is essential for fostering meaningful connections and promoting an inclusive environment. In this guide, we’ll explore practical tips and effective strategies to communicate with Autistic individuals, ensuring positive and supportive interactions.

Use Visual Aids

Visual aids, such as social stories, visual schedules, or diagrams, can be beneficial for many Autistic individuals who may find it easier to understand information presented visually. Incorporating these tools can help to enhance communication and support understanding.

Be Clear and Direct

Autistic individuals often struggle with understanding figurative language or sarcasm. It is essential to use clear, direct language to ensure the message is effectively conveyed. Avoid using metaphors, idioms, or expressions that could lead to misunderstandings.

Allow Time for Processing

Some Autistic people may need additional time to process information and formulate a response. Be patient and allow them the time they need to comprehend and respond to your communication. Avoid interrupting or rushing them.

Observe Nonverbal Cues

Nonverbal communication can be just as important as verbal communication, especially for Autistic individuals who may struggle with expressing themselves through speech. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, and gestures to gain a better understanding of their emotions and intentions.

Respect Personal Space

Some Autistic people may have heightened sensitivity to touch or proximity, so it’s essential to respect their personal space. Always ask for permission before initiating any physical contact, and maintain a comfortable distance during conversations.

Adapt to Communication Preferences

Every Autistic person is unique and may have specific communication preferences. Some may prefer written communication or using communication devices, while others may find verbal communication more comfortable. Adapt your communication style to accommodate their preferences, ensuring a more positive experience for both parties.

Be Open and Supportive

Creating an open and supportive environment is vital for encouraging successful communication with Autistic individuals. Show empathy, listen actively, and avoid making assumptions about their capabilities or needs.


Effective communication with Autistic individuals requires understanding, patience, and a willingness to adapt to their unique communication styles. By implementing these practical tips and strategies, you can foster more positive and meaningful connections while promoting a supportive and inclusive environment for all.