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Characteristics of the Autistic Individual

Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L

November 21, 2017



What are the general characteristics of an autistic individual?  


The biggest deficit with autistic individuals is the social deficit. When I talked in the beginning about the DSM-5,  and on the DSM-5, it doesn't say IQ or cognitive, right? Because you can have average to above average intelligence and have autism. It all comes down to the social piece. You might have an individual who prefers to be alone. I have some kids that they seem like they want to be alone, but they really don't know how to interact with anybody. Once I teach them how to approach somebody and interact with somebody, they are more likely to be with others. You might see them having difficulty with relationships. They will sometimes dominate conversations and they only want to do what they want to do, or they have a hard time understanding why they need to also do what someone else wants to do. I have to teach kids how to think about other people besides themselves and think about what other people might like or what other people might want to do. Difficulty understanding the social rules of the school is another one. There's a good chance you could encounter an adult with autism. Children with autism also have difficulty with social rules of the school. I've had a lot of kids get in trouble during this, where they don't know how to watch other kids in the school and do what they're doing and read some of those gray areas in the school. As kids, you change your behavior based on where you're at and who you're with. So many times I'll see kids get in trouble because they act the same way with their peers as they do the principal. If we all acted the same with our peers that we did our principal, we would all get in trouble, right? We have to teach them how to change their behavior based on who you're with and what environments you're in. So understanding those rules can be hard because there are so many gray areas. Individuals with autism can be very black and white, and so we have to teach them how to understand and know those gray areas, those social rules.

Socially naive 

We have to be really careful and watch these students to make sure they don't get taken advantage of. For example, I have one boy who was on the school bus and he had a kid tell him if you touch this girl on her breast, then I'll be your best friend. They were thinking they were joking around and the individual with autism was like oh, well, I need a best friend so he tried to do that. He got in trouble of course, and now he's known as this kid who did this to this girl, but he didn't know that he was being taken advantage of. He was just thinking I need a best friend. So understanding what the intentions of other people are can be really difficult for individuals with autism. I had to teach that and we had to break it down and teach some of these social skills like we might teach a math problem.


Difficulty imitating the actions of others and learning through observation. We start teaching young individuals with autism the skill of how to imitate. How to watch somebody else and do what they're doing because that's how kids learn. That's how people learn just, in general, is by watching other people and doing what they're doing. If you have an individual who can't do that, they're going to have trouble in school and trouble on the playground and just difficulty knowing what to do. We start this imitation at a really, really young age.


I have 25-year-old who I work with and he does a great job when things are really clear, real black and white. He has got steps that he needs to do. He goes swimming every day in the pool while it's nice out.  I was there one day with him and his normal process was: he goes out, he goes swimming and then he goes into the outdoor bathroom, he gets a towel, dries off and then he comes in the house. When I was there this last time, he went outside, he came out of the pool, he went into the bathroom to get a towel and there was no towel there in the bathroom, so he just stood there soaking wet. He had no problem-solving skills. He didn't know what to do when things didn't go as planned. I had to teach him how to break those down. If there's a towel there or there's not a towel there, what do I need to do? Getting them to socially interact and asking somebody for help or what to do can be hard, so we have to teach that. We have to teach them those processes.

Organizational skills

Knowing how to organize things and what things are important and not important to keep. Helping them through that process, especially in the school situation can be really hard.  


The ability to learn something in one environment and be able to do that in another environment can be really hard for individuals with autism. I did a training and we were talking about this with a group of teachers who were struggling because parents said, "Well, they don't do this at home. "At home, they talk and they tell me things." At school, they don't see them talking. The student isn't asking them to do things. So we had to go over this, that many individuals with autism have trouble with generalization, that they will learn a skill in one environment and if you don't teach them that skill in another environment, they're not going to know how to do it. So we have to reteach those things in each environment in order to help them with generalization.

Learning discrepancies

I have some kids who can read really high or decode, I should say. I call it decoding. For example, I know a mom who's 18 month-2year old kid, could tell her all the planets, but then he couldn't ask mom for help.  So, we meet them where they are at in their reading but also looking at communication.  We are going to have to make it simple. We looked at those discrepancies and built on their strengths. We don't want to hold them back in certain areas, that they were really good at, but also made sure we were breaking things down small enough in the areas that were hard for them.

tara warwick

Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L

Tara Warwick is an occupational therapist who graduated from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in 2006 with her Master of Science in Rehab Sciences. She received a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy in 2000 also from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She has spent her entire career focusing on improving the quality of services for children, primarily targeting children with autism. She currently owns an Oklahoma pediatric therapy practice called Today’s Therapy Solutions and is a consultant for Project PEAK through the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center – Child Study Center. She practices as an occupational therapist in home settings, clinic settings, and school settings. Her specialty includes working with children with autism and challenging behavior.

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