Explaining Autism-Related Terms

Small steps make a big difference

In this article, we explain some common terms used to describe behaviours or issues faced by people with autism.

What is stimming?

Stimming (stim, to stim) is short for self-stimulatory behaviour. It describes things done for the sensation, rather than the result.

There are different categories of stimming, including

  • visual – staring at bright lights or moving objects
  • auditory – listening to a sound or noise over and over, snapping fingers, tapping body parts
  • tactile – rubbing or scratching
  • taste/smell – sniffing, licking or chewing things (sometimes things that aren’t edible)
  • verbal – babbling, yelling
  • proprioception – rocking, toe-walking, bodily movement

Stimming can help to express emotion, moderate sensory input, or calm or comfort oneself. However, some stims can be quite extreme, especially if the stimming is violent (hitting, biting, self-harm) or it becomes frequent enough to disrupt other activities. In cases like these, there are several actions that can be taken:

  • Do not encourage the stim
  • Remove the cause of the stimming
  • Redirect attention when the stimming starts
  • Seek professional help

What are special interests? When do they become obsessions?

People with autism often have very focused interests in particular topics, objects or sensations. They can help to relieve stress or shut out overstimulation. They could also just be pleasurable in general. These are often known as someone’s special interest.

Knowledge and special interest in a specific topic can be useful, and even become a foundation for working or education in adult life. But the fixation on a single thing can sometimes bring about difficulties and become something that needs to be discussed.

When a special behaviour becomes an obsession, it becomes something out of control for that person. This is a good time to ask for help. Some signs to check on are:

  • Can they stop the behaviour or talk on their own?
  • Are they upset or do they seem upset because they cannot stop?
  • Is it causing serious problems for other people around them?
  • Is it affecting their ability to learn?
  • Is it limiting their ability to meet new people or make friends?

What is a meltdown and how is it different from tantrums?

A meltdown is a complete loss of behavioural control, involving screaming, crying or physical violence. They can be caused by

  • sensory overload – an abundance of sensory input, like flashing lights, the noise of a crowd, or the sensation of certain clothing
  • emotional overload – unable to deal with the strength of one’s feelings
  • informational overload – being asked to do too many things at once
  • unpredictability – disruptions in a daily schedule or sudden changes

It can be difficult to tell if a young child is having a meltdown or a normal tantrum. Meltdowns and tantrums differ in three ways:

  • Intention – a tantrum is a child’s way of trying to control the situation. A meltdown has no such plan.
  • Control – A child may pick a spot to throw a tantrum for maximum effect while expressing their emotions. A child in meltdown has no control of where and how it happens.
  • Recklessness – While in a tantrum, a child still has some sense of limits and will probably not hurt themselves on purpose. A child having a meltdown is too affected to have a sense of what is or isn’t dangerous.

It’s possible to avoid meltdowns by lessening overstimulation, working out communication systems, and making it easier for the person with autism to control their surroundings and seek relief from whatever might trigger a meltdown. Caretakers can equip themselves in advance with crash mats to avoid violent collisions, keeping rooms free of breakables, and being a source of calm until the meltdown resolves. You can also look to organisations such as NASOM, IDEAS, ABC, or Hua Ming for help.

What is sensory overload?

Some people with autism have very sensitive senses. Their senses work as normal to pick up stimuli, but the body processes or perceives it abnormally. This is known as a sensory processing disorder or sensory processing issue.

Too much stimuli can result in sensory overload, which then leads to stimming, shutting down or meltdowns. Sensory overload can be more serious in younger children, but it may be outgrown.

What does high-functioning mean?

The perception of ‘high-functioning’ autism includes having a normal intelligence level, being easily able to interact with the world, being verbal, and so on. However, there’s no particular agreement to what this term means.

‘High-functioning’ is somewhat meaningless, and poorly describes the many challenges that a person with autism might face. A person may have high intelligence, but major sensory issues that prevent them from interacting socially. A person with few sensory issues may have trouble maintaining eye contact or talking with others. Function is also not uniform or static, as people deal with different issues from day to day.

The term can also stigmatise and cause harm. Someone perceived as high-functioning may be ignored or refused support that they need, because of the perception that they can handle things independently. A person perceived as low-functioning may be treated like a child, not trusted to advocate for themselves, or be perceived by their flaws first and their strengths later. Every person with autism has their own challenges and strengths that one label alone simply cannot cover.


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Wikipedia (2018) Neurotypical [Accessed: 12 Dec 2018] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurotypical