Traits of the Autistic Spectrum

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Traits of the Autistic Spectrum

Postby Sophist » Mon Mar 12, 2007 5:40 pm

This list and description of traits of Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASCs) is not a professional resource and has been compiled, not solely by the use of the available research literature, but largely via the personal experience of the author and the input of other autistics online. Therefore, this list's contents, while potentially a useful resource, should be read with caution and treated strictly as anecdotal material.


OCD, ANXIETY, NEED FOR REPETITION, & ADHERENCE TO ROUTINE:

Anxiety Issues Anxiety in autism can cover a wide range of issues. It can vary widely from generalized panic attacks to more specific phobias. Social Phobia is a common co-occurring condition. Many autistics, if not diagnosable with a Social Phobia, may have a general social uneasiness. There can also be anxiety surrounding compulsions, obsessive and repetitive thoughts, as well as just general daily life.

Obsessive-Compulsiveness These traits are on a spectrum of their own within the Autistic Spectrum. They may include full-blown Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or milder, undiagnosable behaviors such as a preference for routine, difficulty with change, repetitive thought processes, and compulsions which may fall short of the full OCD criteria.

Obsessions Though many sources imply that an autistic person is primarily obsessed with one thing at a given time, the focus should be on the level of the obsessional interest; not the number of obsessions. It should be noted, however, that obsessional interests are not the sole jurisdiction of ASCs, but rather people with an ASC will generally fall in the more extreme end of this trait expression. The duration can be longstanding (years) or even as brief as a single afternoon. Co-occurring depression may quash obsessional interests. In addition, some adult autistics have also reported a decline in the pleasure of their obsessional interests while taking SSRI’s, medications commonly used for depression, anxiety, and OCD, which are frequent issues in ASCs. So the interplay of mood can greatly affect the level of obsessional interests and, during diagnostic assessment, this needs to be taken into account.

THE SENSES:


Self-stimulatory Behaviors In some autistic individuals, self-stimulation or “stimming” is very extreme; in others, it may be very subtle or indistinguishable from stimulatory behaviors of other non-autistic people. Some autistics may become aware of how their stimming is perceived by others and may attempt to hide these behaviors, such as performing them only when in private. Stimulatory behaviors are common to all humans; however, autistics may have the need for particular types of stims or to stim more frequently. Stimulatory behaviors (or an increase in these behaviors) can be triggered by a non-homeostatic emotional state (e.g., anxiety or excitement). However, stimming can also be a sensory-exploration; not simply a method of anxious calming. Examples of stimulatory behavior can include (but are definitely not limited to): hand flapping, rocking, pacing, voice stimulation, auditory stimulation such as listening to music repetitively, visual stimulation such as spinning objects, etc. Note, however, that stims can sometimes be very difficult to differentiate from tics (e.g., Tic Disorders or Tourette’s).

Sensory Issues Any of the senses can be affected in ASCs: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, vestibular system (balance), proprioception (joint awareness; limb awareness), exteroception (skin awareness), and interoception (awareness of the inner body: organs such as stomach, bladder, bowel movements, etc.). The level of sensitivity of these senses can sometimes be contingent upon anxiety levels, mood, distraction, or other effects of cognitive functioning. Not every autistic person will show a marked sensitivity (or undersensitivity) in each of these sensory categories; the combination of sensory issues varies by person. The level of sensory sensitivity (or undersensitivity) can also often vary in a single person over time; this includes longer periods of time such as years, but also can vary just within the course of a single day, effected by things such as stress levels, exhaustion, and mood.

Coordination, Balance, and Body Awareness Differences in coordination, balance, and body awareness can often present as clumsiness (such as accidents, tripping, falling, dropping things, messy eating), slowness, overly-cautious movements (e.g., to avoid falling), poor balance, or other traits associated with dyspraxia. Performance in these areas can sometimes be affected by shifts in attention, anxiety, mood, or other shifts in cognition. These functions can decline during a task which requires divided attention since these senses are often a combination of tactile/body sensation and the visual system: when the visual system is distracted, the ability to oversee and help coordinate these functions can decline.

COGNITION:

Executive Functioning Autistics’ executive functioning can be affected. Many have issues with multitasking, to the point that looking and listening may be a difficult task. Social multitasking can also be an issue. Common ADHD traits are often noted, if not full-blown ADHD. Attentional problems, organization, multitasking, and goal-oriented planning and carrying out of these plans can all be affected. Although each autistic will show varying combinations of these at different levels of severity. Performance in these areas can also be affected by shifts in attention, anxiety, mood, or other shifts in cognition.

Theory of Mind It is uncertain what factors inevitably lead to a poorer theory of mind. Theory of Mind is the ability to intuitively understand and predict other peoples' behavior, thoughts, and emotions and then act accordingly to achieve optimal social communication and interaction. Autistic people may have problems with this due to several reasons: difficulty understanding emotions in general (not only other peoples', but his/her own as well); difficulty reading nonverbal behavior; and difficulty in putting oneself, emotionally, into another person's "shoes". There are likely many other factors which play a role in theory of mind, however, these are some issues which have already been targeted in ASCs. Most autistics will have at least some difficulty with this, if not severe difficulties. On the milder end, however, this trait may not be noticeable except to closer friends and family members. Therefore, a single diagnostic interview may be not enough to adequately assess this trait.

Local Processing Bias Autistics may have what is called a Weak Central Coherence for information. If one thinks of non-autistic people as being the “generalizers” of the world– those who are constantly making associations during their intake and analysis of information– then autistics could be called the “specializers”, where information is coded more piecemeal or non-associatively. This is the main reason many autistics have issues with literal interpretation of language, symbolism, and/or some abstract concepts, because it takes a great deal of neural cooperation to tie concepts together. For an autistic, this can be both an advantage and disadvantage in that it is more difficult to build conceptual gestalts but it is easier to see and analyze the parts of these gestalts. However, as a caution, as with all characteristics associated with ASCs, this local processing bias varies by degree from autistic to autistic, and can cause varying levels of abilities and difficulties. It should also be noted that this is not necessarily an inability to globalize information but simply a bias to process in a non-associative fashion. When cued, many autistics have the ability to generalize information. In addition, this local processing bias is in many ways a strength. While it may cause difficulties in the social realm and other areas, it is often what makes autistics such good analyzers and organizers in their chosen fields of study. Additionally, it is likely why so many within the fields of science and engineering have been on or near the Autistic Spectrum.

Talent Areas Many autistic people have splinter skills, talents, or even prodigious talent areas. The areas most noted are: music, art, mathematics, language acquisition, memory, visuo-spatial skills, writing, computers, and analysis of information. Though this list is by no means exhaustive.

General Intelligence (Wechsler/Stanford-Binet) Despite the debate regarding the reliability of these IQ tests and their abilities to truly measure and predict, autistics may perform well on such tests. For those without greater language issues, vocabulary is frequently above average. Above average performance on the Block Design has also been noted amongst autistics. It is also not uncommon for an autistic to show at least one standard deviation’s difference on the Wechsler between his or her Verbal and Performance IQ’s. Also within the Wechsler, many autistics tend to show a “hill and valley” arrangement within the various subtests, meaning that there is a greater variability from subtest to subtest. However, as for the debate earlier mentioned, an issue has been raised regarding these tests, that their value as a tool to measure the Intelligence Quotient of an autistic (and therefore, be a good predictor of success) is in great doubt. These tests rely heavily upon academic study, communication abilities, and general willingness to participate during the testing that the reliability of these tests within the autistic population should be viewed with caution. Also, it is not uncommon during the development that an autistic person’s testing ability would vastly improve with time, so that a child who is tested at age 3 and deemed mentally retarded may well test out in the superior ranges by age 11. The test-retest reliability of these tools has not been studied upon autistic samples, so when using this tool this should be taken into consideration.

THE SOCIAL REALM:

Social Issues This group of traits is usually most obvious to onlookers or during interaction and the reason the Autistic Spectrum has mistakenly been called “social disorders”. Issues in this area can range from very severe to very mild. Most autistics have difficulty in this broad area, although these difficulties can be very subtle in some and difficulty in this area is not a condemnation to lifelong solitude (many autistic people are married and have children, friends, etc.). Some of the common characteristics which add to social difficulty can include: nonverbal reading issues, difficulty with social multitasking, social phobia and other anxiety issues, and theory of mind problems. Some autistics may also have less of a desire or the energy to interact socially, although this is certainly not the case for all.

COMMUNICATION:


Language Expression For some autistics, language can be affected to the point of a complete inability to communicate verbally (either due to a global language impairment, verbal motor apraxia, or even catatonia affecting speech). For others, language can be less noticeably affected. For those with more fluent speech, some autistics may have poor prosodic control such as monotonic speech, some may have poor volume control, others may become interested in accents and consistently speak in voices, some may have more formal or pedantic speech, and others still may simply have an indefinable, unusual way with words. But there are also autistics who can blend well, language-wise, into the world.

Repetition of Speech Echolalia is the repetition of another’s speech. It can be immediate, directly repeating the words of another person, or it can be delayed, as in monologuing part of a scene from a cartoon or movie. Many autistics show varying degrees of echolalia. Some, who experience speech delay or who develop minimal speech, may largely depend on echolalia as their first or main form of communication. For others, echolalia may be a minor eccentricity and flavor or color their speech, such as a child who speaks well but occasionally replies with favorite movie lines that may loosely fit the circumstance. In these cases, the echolalia may go unnoticed and simply make speech sound a bit eccentric, unless the listener is familiar with the quote himself. Palilalia is another form of speech repetition which involves the repetition of one’s own speech. The repetition in palilalia is usually immediate and not delayed. Both echolalia and palilalia can sometimes occur as a compulsion or tic, as in Tourette’s Syndrome or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Nonverbal Language Issues Many autistic people have difficulty in recognizing, reading, and interpreting nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication includes gestures, facial movements, body positioning and other sorts of communication which involve the body and the face. However, functioning in this area can range from only very mildly affected where the person may miss cues but keeps up with a majority of nonverbal communication, to someone who is more seriously affected and cannot recognize, read, and interpret the majority of nonverbal language.

Prosodic Interpretation Some autistic people can have difficulty in reading the portion of verbal language which includes voice tone and range. There is more meaning to language than words alone convey, and having a good understanding of prosodic language can be integral to correctly interpreting the entire communication picture. Some autistics may only listen to the words themselves completely ignoring intonation, while others may simply miss subtler tonal cues.

EMOTIONS:

Emotional Dysregulation Many autistic people have difficulty with the regulation of their emotions. This can include a wide variety of emotions and can range from under-responsiveness to over-responsiveness; this dysregulation can also range from causing severe difficulties to behaviors which may be only mildly problematic in day to day life. The autistic person may have the utmost patience for a normally-frustrating project while on the other hand, he or she may erupt over something seemingly trivial. Not every autistic person has difficulties with emotional regulation but for those who do, the level of dysregulation can often, though not always, be traced back to stress levels. If the person is going through a more stressful period in life, his or her ability to control emotional behavior may decline.

Emotional Sensitivity Some autistic people are very sensitive to the emotional states of those around them. Even those who may seem as though they are in a world of their own can be very in tune with the emotional states of their caretakers, families, and friends. This can cause a great degree of inner discord if the autistic person is sensing (and then reacting to) the anxiety, anger, or sadness that other people around them are exhibiting. So it is unwise to assume that because an autistic person is nonverbal or does not seem as though they are paying attention or reacting as one would expect most people to react to the emotions of another person, that the autistic person is not affected. Sometimes they can be overly-affected and this can cause an increase in stress and more problematic behaviors.

SLEEP:

Sleep Disturbances Many autistics have issues with sleep. Frequently, there is a difficulty getting to sleep or with staying asleep. Sometimes it can be an obsessive-compulsive problem related to repetitive thoughts and the inability to “wind down”.

CO-OCCURRING CONDITIONS:

Common Co-occurring Conditions ADHD/ADD, OCD, Depression, Social Phobia, Central Auditory Processing Disorder, Learning Disabilities including Nonverbal Learning Disorder, Dyslexia and other disorders of written or verbal expression, Tourette’s Syndrome and other Tic Disorders, Bipolar Disorder, Psychosis (most often noted in the teenage or early adult years), Schizophrenia, Epilepsies, various dyspraxias and apraxias, Catatonia, Prosopagnosia and other perceptual disorders, Synaesthesia, and a host of others. For some, addictions can also be an issue. Additionally, ASCs can co-occur with other conditions such as Fragile X, Tuberous Sclerosis, MeCP2 mutations (Rett's Syndrome), Angelman Syndrome, and Down's Syndrome.

AUTISM IN THE FAMILY:

Family Genetics Most cases of ASC are considered "idiopathic"-- meaning they are of unknown origin. However, like any other phenotypic expression, if a child exhibits some characteristic, members within his or her family will frequently express similar characteristics, be it red hair or a personality trait. A “Broader Autistic Phenotype” (sometimes also known as “Autistic Cousin” or a “Shadow Syndrome”) is frequently noted amongst family members, and sometimes full-blown autism itself. Autistic Spectrum Conditions are highly heritable; one study in particular suggested that the concordance rate of "autistic traits" between identical twins is as high as 92% (with 10% concordance between fraternal twins).


This is not an exhaustive list of characteristics of the Autistic Spectrum. Nor are all these characteristics particular to autism alone. It includes a listing of traits one most commonly sees in Autistic Spectrum Conditions. But please note that not every autistic person will display every point on this list nor to a similar degree as the next autistic person. This is just a general guideline to some of the underlying issues seen in ASCs.

Additionally, the studies of human behavior, cognition, genetics, and environmental effects are constantly growing, reworked, reworded, re-evaluated, and updated with new knowledge and understanding. Therefore, this traits list will also continually be updated to reflect our growth in the understanding of what the world now knows as the Autistic Spectrum.


Last edited on: 01/13/2011

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Re: Traits of the Autistic Spectrum

Postby Sophist » Mon Dec 15, 2008 4:58 am

Note to Readers: If, after reading this list, you are interested in any of the research literature on any of the above topics, please contact me via PM and I'll try to be of help in pointing you in the right direction. :)
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