What is autism? What are the different types of autism? -

What is autism? What are the different types of autism?

By Georg Fasching | neurodiversity

Feb 26

(Following is the full transcript of the video found at the bottom.)

Hi, Georg Fasching here, helping you unlock your team’s genius.

In this episode in the neurodiversity series, I am going to cover autism, including all the different types of autism, different characteristics of autism, also signs of autism in adults, and of course, all the strengths that autistic people have to offer as well as areas where they might require some support.

And last but not least, we’re also going to cover some of the roles that people with autism could cover in a team.

Different types of autism – Autism Spectrum Disorder Condition

Now first and foremost, it is very worth pointing out that autism is considered a spectrum condition, or as it is clinically referred to, a spectrum disorder. When we’re talking about spectrum conditions, we are looking at a spectrum that goes from one point to another point. However, in autism, it is not so simple, which is absolutely fascinating.

So in this particular neurotype, we need to consider that there is a multiple dimensional spectrum that is going on, so it’s not only one linear progression from how autistic is this person, from not autistic at all to completely autistic. There is no such classification. It just simply does not work like that.

But over to considering all the different aspects of autism, and in this particular one individual that is in front of us, what is the constellation of all of those different aspects and therefore what is the shape of this multidimensional spectrum of this one person with autism.

Always more to see.
If you met one person with autism, 
you met one person with autism.
Always more to see.
If you met one person with autism,
you met one person with autism.

So in the literature around this subject, there is also the notion around how functioning a person is. Clinically, that is still being followed, but in the support communities, it is not necessarily a classification that is appreciated all too much.

But just leveraging it here in order to tell you a little bit more about it, there is a lower end of functioning in terms of autism and a higher-functioning end of autism in the literature. And there is also a correlation between intellectual and language development.

So when we’re looking at what is considered in the clinical literature, in particular, less functioning or low-functioning autism would be less intellectual development and less language development on this side of this particular map, which is categorized as a two by two, where people with less IQ development and less language development are considered low functioning. And that used to be, and to this day in certain aspects and circles, is still also considered “classic autism”, all the way over to what is considered high-functioning autism with extremely good, well above the norm language development and also above-average IQ on the high-functioning end of autism.

Now once again, this is just one way of trying to make sense of this fascinating neurotype and is only covering again two, maybe three different spectra out of so many more.And I’d like to share more with you here in order for you to get an appreciation of how complex this fascinating neurotype truly is.

So we covered some of those spectra already, but in order to really convey the essence of autism, is is very useful to think about the three Ss, as I’ve come to describe them.

Characteristics of autism, and signs of autism in adults

So the three Ss, in brief summary before I go into each of them in a bit more detail, is sensory, social, and sense-making.

The first S: the sensory dimension

So sensory describes all the senses that we as humans possess, and when it comes to autism, every person with autism, for each of the different senses, can have either a hyposensitivity or a hypersensitivity, so either overly sensitive to something or a lot less sensitive than what is considered the norm for a particular sense.

So we have auditory, the sense of hearing, and this applies to a larger proportion of the population with autism are hypersensitive, are more sensitive to loud noises and noisy environments than the average population or the neurotypical people might be.

The other one, the visual sense, it is also a bit more widely established that people with autism have a visual hypersensitivity, especially photophobia, where blinding lights or very bright lights can feel painful to people with autism is also there, but also specific patterns can be more irritating than what for a neurotypical person might be very easy to process. And again, this is very different from individual to individual.

The haptic sense, the sense of touch, is a very interesting one to consider, as well, where people can either be hyper or hyposensitive to touch. Some people with autism find it unbearable to receive a light touch but find it very comforting to feel a very firm touch. So some people with autism are seekers of that firm touch sensation, as well, so there are also weighted blankets to help create that sensation of a firm touch around it, for example, to fill that requirement for stimulus of the haptic sense.

Then the olfactory sense, the sense of smell, is also worth looking at, where certain smells, sometimes very specific smells, are being perceived a lot stronger than what a person without that particular expression might perceive, and it is not a general sensitivity, necessarily.

It could really be to very, very specific scents. So for example, a certain perfume or cologne that somebody else is wearing, the person next to you without that sensitivity may not even notice that somebody is walking past with that particular scent or perfume, but a person with autism with that sensory sensitivity can barely breathe by smelling this other one, so it’s also worth considering.

Then we have the gustatory sense [sic: sense of taste], where again, it could be hyper or hyposensitive. For example, some really seek spicy or hot food, while others prefer completely bland food and really find comfort in that. So those are sort of the five key senses.

Another aspect that comes in here is the proprioceptive sense, the ability to imagine the positioning of different parts of our body in the space around us, so it correlates also with gross motor sense considerations where it could be tricky to coordinate hand-eye movements. So catching balls, for example, could be a challenge, or simply positioning oneself into one’s space is also difficult, or again, for some, it can be extremely good.

So there is an autistic surfer who is absolutely one with the waves and has absolutely fantastic spatial awareness and a very, very finely tuned proprioceptive sense to really understand how to move within the waves.

Again, all of these things can be either superbly developed or can be a hindrance, and with some practice, some of these senses can be honed. Some of these aspects can be channeled.

So that is just one of the three Ss, sensory, and again, for each of those, it can be either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity in any constellation, so we’re starting to really layer on to this appreciation of this multidimensional spectrum condition.

So the second area is social.

The second S: the social dimension

So a leading researcher and helper in the field, Lorna Wing, she has come up with the three aspects of the social dimension, the social area, where we’re looking at social communications first off.

Social communication

So social communications can be a challenge in the sense that, for example, expressions that for neurotypicals are just everyday part of language can be challenging to understand, or people can be taken very literal while they are actually being quite figurative in the way that they are speaking, or sarcasm can be difficult to follow, whereas again, for others, sarcasm is extremely natural and might be their main form of humor, for example.

So social communications is an area, usually, where there are some challenges. Things being taken quite literally tends to be a bit wider distributed in the autistic population.

Social interaction

So the other area is the area of social interaction, where it is almost required and incredibly beneficial for people with autism to have a clear set of behavioural guidelines or etiquettes or rules, because it is a challenge to intuitively absorb what the social convention is around certain behavioural expectations and aspects.

So learning about etiquette from books or courses or other educational opportunities or the household where they grow up is very useful.

Then another aspect is eye contact. For people with autism, it can be difficult to actually hold eye contact. It can be quite overwhelming, because the information processing is almost unfiltered, which can be an absolute strength for someone with autism, the fact that the brain and the perception is trying to absorb so much detailed information, much of which is filtered out for neurotypical people.

And when you think about eye contact, there is a lot of information that is being processed by your brain, most of it very intuitively. So if you look into the eyes of another person, you might focus on the eyes of the person, but your brain is also processing all the microexpressions that are going on in the face, all the other muscle movements and mimicry that is going on in the face, in addition to all the information that is already transported verbally from one person to another.

So this is a very interesting friction point between the social norms of neurotypical people and what is very normal for autistic people,’cause actually, an autistic person is paying very close attention to what you’re saying, but may not be seeking eye contact.

They are giving you the undivided attention and processing every single thing that you are saying. And for an autistic person, that is the absolute key, so neurotypical people, only a small number of percent, there is no absolutely hard number, but under 10, roughly, percent of all the information that are being exchanged from person to person through talking is actually verbal.

The vast majority, some 90 or so percent, is communicated through other means. And for an autistic person, there is this focus on the verbal aspect, so just what is considered 3% up to maybe 9% or so of information, but that equals the entirety of the focus of a person with autistic traits participating in a conversation.

So the eye contact that is being sought by neurotypical people can get overwhelming for somebody with autistic traits, because they are using their entire attention and focus in order to process all the verbal information.

And then having to also process all the detail that are being intuitively processed by a neurotypical person requires an intellectual analysis from somebody with autistic traits, so that is very, very challenging.

And in order to normalize this, which actually is one of the more easily observable signs of autism in adults, is just to have the conversation about eye contact. So if you identify as a person with autistic traits and you’re aware that holding eye contact is difficult for you, then you could simply have the conversation with the person.

Say hey, if my eye contact drifts off, that just means that I’m very intrigued by what you’re saying and I’m giving you my undivided attention, listening to everything that you say. I hope that’s okay with you.

Something like that is all that’s required in order to help the other person in the conversation know that this is your particular way of really focusing in on the conversation. You don’t even need to disclose that you have autistic traits, and you may not even have autistic traits, but that might be the way that you’re communicating, which is fine, as well.

So that is an aspect of social interaction.

Social imagination

Let’s move on to the third area in the social area, the third aspect in the social area, which is social imagination, so this is where we are looking at the theory of mind.

The theory of mind means that we have an awareness and we have an ability to interpret social context and social situations, and it also means that we have an ability to anticipate what might happen next.

So while a neurotypical person might go into a situation and become intuitively aware of the entire context that is going on, for a person with autistic traits, going into a situation like that requires intellectual analysis, and that is, of course, not every easily done, but requires a lot of mental effort.

So an example could be if you show a photo to a person with autistic traits about two children, a boy and a girl, and the boy slightly older than the girl, and the boy is handing a ball to the girl, and in the background you see the window of a house that has a ball-shaped broken glass in there.

To a person with a neurotypical neurotype, it might be quite obvious that the two things are connected and that perhaps the boy has been playing with the ball and accidentally broken the window, grabbed the ball, and is now trying to hand the ball to the girl so that the girl gets the blame for the damage.

A person with autistic traits might look at the exact same picture, and just when asked, what do you notice about this picture, might notice everything else going on but might not connect the broken glass to the boy and the girl in the foreground. So that is an example of what could happen.

So here related is a myth that comes up about people with autistic traits, which is that they have no empathy, and that’s actually absolute humbug. It’s just that empathy is expressed differently and some people with autistic traits are actually significantly more empathetic than some neurotypical people, so again, we can’t make brush stroke generalisations and judgments about neurotypical people or people with autistic traits.

So yeah, that covers the social area, and we’re moving on to the third S, which is the sense-making area, so this is yet another absolutely fascinating facet of autism where we are looking at how does the cognitive processing actually work for an autistic brain.

The third S: sense-making

And something that generally is the case for people with autistic traits is that the brain is processing a lot of detail and is able to absorb a lot of detail in a short amount of time, as well.

And that is often paired with an intense focus, especially if that detail is related to topics that the person finds very interesting and follows one of their deeper special interests.

Now what tends to be a challenge is then actually abstracting all of the detail and hold it in the mind as one generalised concept.

That can be tricky for a person with autistic traits because there is always a continual processing of all the data that has already been absorbed, and retaining the big picture can be a challenge. It does not necessarily have to be, but it can be a challenge.

However, being comfortable in all those different aspects and details is something that can be quite natural for a person with autistic traits.

So what also happens, then, with that detail or that data is the seeing of patterns. The systematising of the information is something that an autistic brain can be really, really good at, as well.

And with that systematising, that leads onto another aspect of the sense-making part where some people with autistic traits can develop repetitive or stereotyped behaviors.

So one example that you might have come across is stimming or echolalia. Stimming is the high-frequency repetitive movement of certain body parts, so hand flapping, for example, or it could be spinning in place.

And that can happen when a person with autistic traits is either very excited or overwhelmed by things that are not really going as intended or going as planned, going as designed.

And the coping mechanism is then the stimming, because that is a predictable, repetitive system of input, action, outcome that is sought by the autistic brain in order to regain comfort.

Echolalia means that there is an involuntary repetition of words or whole sentences that the other person is saying in order to either process what the other person is saying or in a way to acknowledge receipt of what the other person is saying while perhaps getting ready to respond to the other person, so that can all happen.

So having covered all of those areas, one thing also to bear in mind is the processing of emotion is something that again can be practiced through deliberate practice of emotional intelligence, but is something that can also be perceived as a challenge for people with autistic traits.

When it all gets to be too much

So that can be an overwhelming experience when emotion rises from the inside and then sensory overload happens from the outside.

So in social interactions where there’s already a lot going on, there could be sensory overload because there’s too much information, too much noise, everything going on there and an emotional aspect inside.

And all of that is not allowing the autistic brain to really make sense of everything that is going on and there is this sense of overwhelm.

Now the autistic brain tends to respond to those challenges in three different ways.

Acutely, so in the moment when it’s getting too much, the mildest form of the coping mechanism would be what is called a shutdown where one sense is being shut down by the brain, so no more auditory signals, no more hearing is being processed and channeled through to the brain, for example.

If that is still not enough, then that whole thing could build up into what is referred to as a meltdown, which is a complete inability, and in children, that is sometimes described as a tantrum, but it’s not a tantrum. It’s not a reaction by the child because it’s not getting its way, for example.

It is simply because everything that is going on is just way too much to handle. There’s all this information and the data that needs to be processed by the perception coming in from the outside, all the sensory aspects, and there is all the information that is coming from the inside through a strong surge of emotion.

For example, there might be some social interactions that are drawing the focus and energy of the person, as well.

All of that is just getting too much, like a pressure cooker that is reaching its limit, and then the meltdown is happening.

When it comes back to signs of autism in adults, that is something that can also be observed. However, meltdowns tend to be less frequently experienced as in children because as adults, they have learned to really be mindful of the environment and learn more about emotional intelligence and process all of that and learn more about social interactions.

So all of that can intellectually, through deliberate practice, be improved upon. The third coping mechanism is not an acute one.

It tends to sneak up on people with autistic traits, and that would be a burnout.

So through gradual overexertion in these three areas, in particular, the sensory and the social one, the overall energy of the person with autistic traits is just being depleted, and then the person reaches autistic burnout, and in order to counteract that, real self care needs to be practiced, excuse me, real self care needs to be practiced and even more restorative solitude is sought than an autistic would want to do anyway.

The spa of people with autistic traits

So restorative solitude is something that people with autistic traits would use in order to reset, so after a day at work, for example, following their preferred activity, which is solitary, would be a way for them to process everything that has happened over the course of the day and recharge their batteries.

So there is some similarity between that and what people who might identify as introverted might describe, so seeking restoration in solitude is absolutely key following a deep or special interest that the person really finds very suited to them.

And doing that for a specific period of time without interruption in a quiet environment that has sensory controls to really be very comfortable, that is something that allows a person with autistic traits to then recover and rejuvenate in order to go about their day.

And those would be those coping mechanisms.

Communication re-communicated

When we spoke about different types of autism and looked at the different classifications, there is perhaps one area where I don’t believe I was clear enough.

When you think back to what we talked about when I mentioned the language development, there is a scenario where people with autistic traits who might be classified as having classic autism or be on the low-functioning end of that particular clinical way of categorising people, which I’m not a big fan of, but anyway, are nonverbal.

And that of course means that they don’t have the ability to speak, but that, of course, also does not mean that they don’t have the ability to communicate.

We simply need to find a way that allows us to communicate with them, that allows them to communicate with us, and that can be through any number of things.

It could be typing, drawing, or through symbol apps on devices. Nowadays there are a lot of options available to choose from, so that’s something else about the different types of autism.

Generally speaking, there is autism, and then there are very different ways of, different autistic traits and combination of all of these spectra, how they’re showing up.

So there is autism generally, and then clinically, there is an attempt to come up with different types of autism, but there are some sensitivities around that that we want to be mindful of.

What’s the prevalence of this neurotype?

When it comes to the prevalence of autism in the general population, we are looking at anywhere between one in 42 to one in 168 people who are being diagnosed with autistic traits, and the reason we have this wide range is because worldwide, we’re getting better at diagnosis.

Now there are a lot more nuances to it, also, between male and female people with autistic traits.

There are some other aspects that I haven’t covered yet that would just make use for yet another video.

This is simply supposed to be an overview of the beautiful complexity of this neurotype, but we are generally getting better at diagnosis, diagnosis earlier, and we’re also getting better at diagnosis later in life based on the signs of autism in adults.

How autistic traits shine

Now I have attempted to highlight how the different aspects could be leveraged in order to be used as strengths for value creation of some of these different traits of people with autistic traits, and just summarising some of those and I’ll add to them as well.

So think back to the sensory side of things, so someone who has a very good sense of smell, that can be incredibly useful for someone who finds the smell of wines very pleasing, for example.

So it is very conceivable that a person with autistic traits takes to become a sommelier, for example, because they have an incredibly well-developed, hypersensitive sense of smell or gustatory sense, and there are a lot of different categorisations, also, of wine, so that feeds into the processing of lots of level of detail and the systematising nature, as well, of the autistic brain.

So that’s an example of where a hypersensory sensitivity could be a really strong asset.

Or someone who is hypervisual could be incredibly good at playing through different scenarios of blueprints and construction in their mind.

Temple Grandin comes to mind, who wrote a book called Thinking in Pictures, and she is designing factory buildings in her mind and working out some structural engineering issues of other engineering projects all simply in her mind, based on her incredibly detailed ability to imagine visually.

So that could be one aspect there, or I mentioned the surfer who has incredibly strong spatial reasoning and proprioceptive sense development, so that could be another one, right?

So every one of those sensory aspects, one more example actually could be auditory hypersensitivity to some extent, so not necessarily in terms of volume.

A person like that would be likely have high sensitivity when it comes to volume, but often also has very well-developed sense of hearing when it comes to perfect pitch, for example.

And that, of course, could be a great asset in music composition, music a language on its own with system and patterns and repetitive patterns in there, so again, another area where autistic traits can be really an absolute strength for a person like that.

Overall, in terms of what would be considered personality or character traits, very, very often, people with autistic traits tend to be very honest and nonjudgmental, and that honesty is something that in many contexts, we might want to have a bit more of, actually, but of course needs to be nuanced so that it’s not considered rude by the general population.

But yeah, so people with autistic traits have an absolutely huge potential, then, just because we need to be mindful of the sensory aspects and the social aspects and so on and so forth, does not mean at all that a person with autism is anything less than a person without autism.

It’s just different, like with all the neurotypes that we’re covering. Very important thing to bear in mind.

There is also nothing to fix, just everything to learn and everything to understand and everything to benefit.

Good, so let’s look at the world of work in the area of product development and product development teams.

So once again, all the strengths that people with autism, autistic traits have, we can leverage in different types of roles, and in different roles, the different strengths will come through in different ways. But it’s not actually so that there’s only one particular one that is particularly useful.

So research would be phenomenal, for example, to analyse data, data science could be incredibly good. Advocating for particular social groups or social aspects would be quite good, too.

You wouldn’t plant a flower in a dark cupboard, would you?!

The only thing to bear in mind, really, is that the sensory side of things is quite worth considering, especially when we think about open-plan offices where there are a lot of conversations happening and all these conversations around have information and data that the autistic brain just wants to take in.

And that makes it quite difficult to then focus on the conversation with the person in front of us.

So bearing that in mind, just accounting for that, maybe having a quiet room, maybe having a team space that is not open-plan
would be really great so people with autistic traits don’t tire out as quickly.

Let’s look at the overall prevalence of autism.

Over the last decades all around the world, overall, we have become much better at diagnosing autism, and we are looking at one in 42 up to one in 168 people, but probably more on the higher frequency or higher propensity in terms of population in there, and we still are not diagnosing all of the people.

There is a fair amount of self-diagnosis of people who are just becoming aware that they are exhibiting autistic traits but don’t seek a formal diagnosis because they don’t feel like they would benefit from it, which is absolutely fine, too.

We just need to be aware of our own profile regardless of what neurotype we are, what are our strengths, what are some things that might want some support, and then look to seek that support and work it out for us.

So out of that population of autism, only a very small percentage is displaying what is clinically referred to as classic autism, which often is nonverbal and people are unable to communicate verbally. Again, that doesn’t really mean that they are unable to communicate at all. It’s just different forms of communication.


What we’ve covered so far is the fact that there are not really different types of autism.

Just clinically, there is an attempt to label all sorts of different types of autism, but when someone is on the spectrum, they’re on the spectrum, and then it’s not a question of how autistic is the person. That question is unanswerable. It is a non-question, it’s a non-issue.

It’s simply learning about the particular profile of that person, looking at all the different spectra and what the constellation is for that one person.

What are the strengths of that person?
What is an area where that person might want some support and would benefit from it?

And then to work that we enable that support in the environment so that the person can truly thrive in their life and surprise us with all the wonderful things that they are capable of.

So that concludes an overview summary. It is lengthy because this is such a rich and complex and fascinating neurotype.

We haven’t covered all of it yet. There is more to it, so if you’re curious, want to find out more, or have any questions about any of the things that I have mentioned, please do let me know in the comments.

And I really hope that the information in this video was useful. I have certainly enjoyed researching about it and I look forward to covering the next neurotype in the next episode of the neurodiversity series.

It may well be Asperger’s syndrome, which is a particular part of the autism spectrum conditions that actually has been declassified for some reason. So when we talk about the Asperger’s syndrome, we are gonna explore also why and what the impact of that might be.

So for today, I would like to thank you very much for your attention.

It’s been an absolute pleasure sharing this information with you, and until the next episode in the neurodiversity series,

I wish you all the best for the practice with your team.

Thank you very much and goodbye.

Also in the neurodiversity series:


About the Author

An agilist since 2010 and in product management since the 90s, Georg Fasching helps digital creative agencies delight their clients, fulfil their people, and improve their prosperity.

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