What Symptoms Do All Autistic People Have in Common?

Autistic people are different from one another, but they share these symptoms.

diverse group of children

How Diverse Is the Autism Spectrum?

The autism spectrum includes an incredibly wide range of people, with an amazingly broad range of abilities and challenges. If you ask for general information about autism, you're likely to be told "when you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism."

This diversity means that it can be surprisingly difficult to craft a meaningful 30-second description of the disorder.

How diverse are people with an autism spectrum diagnosis?  Here are just a few of the more obvious differences among people on the spectrum:

  • Some people on the spectrum have no spoken language -- but others talk a mile a minute.
  • Some are very engaged (often too engaged) with other people, while others would be happy to spend most of their lives in complete solitude.
  • Some have no problem with crowds or noise while others are upset by the buzz of a fluorescent light bulb.
  • Some autistic people are capable of high level academic achievement, while others have severe cognitive and/or learning disabilities.
  • Some autistic people have aggressive and/or self-aggressive behaviors, while others are gentle and slow to anger.

But autism really is a distinct disorder that is described, in detail, in the diagnostic manual.

So, what symptoms do all autistic people share?

What all individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum have in common are significant difficulties in the areas of social communication, repetitive behaviors, an over-focus on specific areas of interest, and unusual responses to sensory input (sound, light, taste, etc.).

These differences are significant enough that they must impair the individual's ability to take part in ordinary activities of life.

To unpack this idea, it's helpful to look at how each area of concern might look in different people.

Social communication.  Social communication is a very broad concept.

  It incorporates not only the ability to talk, but also the ability to converse, ask and answer questions, send and receive non-verbal body language, intuit hidden meanings buried between the lines, and much more. Some people with autism have very severe deficits in this area (they can't speak at all, or use spoken language in very limited ways).  Others may be able to answer complex academic questions or speak at length about an area of interest, but have no idea how to converse with someone who doesn't share their interests. In either case, however, social communication deficits have a significant impact on daily life.

Repetition and perseveration. People with autism like to do the same thing over and over again, in the same way. For some people, that may mean following the same routines, watching the same movies, or talking about the same subject. For others, it may mean flushing the toilet or making the same sound over and over again. In either case, however, repetition and perseveration have a significant negative impact on daily life.

Sensory challenges. People with autism react differently from most people to sensory input. Some people have extreme reactions to certain sounds, smells, etc., and are unable to be in a public space. Others have milder responses. Some prefer quiet and dim lights and avoid touch while others love loud music and crave deep pressure. Either way, for most autistic people, sensory challenges get in the way of enjoying ordinary life experiences.


Autism Society of America Website
Autism Spectrum Disorders (Pervasive Developmental Disorders) National Institute of Mental Health, 2004. Greenspan, Stanley. "The Child with Special Needs." C 1998: Perseus Books.

Romanowski, Patricia et al. "The OASIS Guide to Asperger Syndrome." C 2000: Crown Publishers, New York, NY.

Continue Reading