3 Main Characteristics of Autism | Visualized Health

Reviewed by The Clinical Committee

July 19, 2019

  • Skills that we take for granted can be challenging or near-impossible for autistic individuals.

  • Most of us are able to pick up on emotions, communicate with our body language, and build friendships.

  • Deficits in all 3 of these skills help define autism.

3 Main Characteristics of Autism

While there are many symptoms that often afflict individuals with autism, these three are considered the most characteristic symptoms in autism.

These are the 3 main characteristics that are necessary for a diagnosis of Autism according to the DSM-5.

Below these, we have also listed 5 other symptoms that often accompany these 3 symptoms.

What is the DSM?

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual is the most commonly used manual for diagnosing psychiatric disorders and conditions. Since psychiatric disorders are often not well defined by an underlying cause, manuals like these are used to define what consistitutes a disorder and what is normal behavior.


Socio-emotional Reciprocity

Have you ever just "clicked" with someone? Good conversation can sometimes resemble a dance in that we need to communicate, understand, and collaborate with our partners in order to form a connection and share ideas. We often don't notice this happening until it doesn't work and we have a profoundly awkward conversation. In order to be diagnosed as autistic, an individual needs to have difficulties with connecting and understanding the emotions of another individual, for example during a conversation or collaborative task.

Reference: J Autism Dev Disord.

"Basic reciprocity was measured by coding how often a drawing action of the child made a physical connection with the preceding drawing action of the experimenter. Collaborative reciprocity was coded when the child and the experimenter mutually drew meaningful objects, based on a shared underlying goal (e.g., when the child and the experimenter both add elements to the drawing of a tree)."


Non-verbal Communication

Much of communication happens outside of our words. We can tell people how much we love our jobs, but if we're frowing while we're doing so it might not be so believable. We can tell someone how close we feel to them, but if our arms are crossed, it may not come across that way. The way we carry ourselves, the emotions projected on our faces, and the gestures we make with our hands can all play a huge role in communicating our thoughts and ideas. Individuals with autism, by definition, have difficulty with this type of nonverbal communication.

Reference: Autism & Developmental Language Impairments

"According to the diagnostic criteria of Diagnostic and statistical mannual of mental disorders (DSM-5) and International Classification of Diseases (ICD)-10, impairment of both gesture use and recognition of others’ gestures is one of the most significant symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These symptoms manifest themselves from infancy in difficulties with reciprocity in non-verbal communication, such as responding to a smile with a smile and pointing one's finger in response to stimuli. Difficulties in non-verbal communication are predictors of delayed verbal communication development in infants diagnosed with ASD."



Making friends can be difficult for everyone. Finding people who we get along with, building trust, and maintaining that bond isn't easy. Individuals with autism have greater difficulty forming and maintaining friendships, particularly with their peers in the same group. Many individuals with autism want to have more friends, but are unable to form the meaningful connections necessary for close friendships and relationships. This can lead to them feeling lonely.

Reference: J Autism Dev Disord

"There is a growing body of literature on friendships in children and adolescents with autism, with research indicating that such children and adolescents rarely develop typical peer relationships. Other research showed that even among those who have developed friendships, there often is great difficulty defining what a friend is and report greater feelings of loneliness compared to typically developing children."

More Information on Autism Spectrum Disorder:

Keys to Health

Many may have at one point suspected autism in ourselves and our family members.

It is safe to say however that it's entirely normal to feel some difficulty with socializing. We all go through challenges with making friends and communicating at times. Even the most sociable of us have awkward moments.

In order to qualify as autism, an individual would need to have significant challenges in all 3 areas. Additionally, these challenges would need to be great enough that it gets in the way of normal function, for example making friends and getting along with peers.

By definition, these deficits develop early in life. However, it is entirely possible that they are not noticed or they're compensated for until later in life. Some individuals with signficant autism may never get diagnosed.

This is a particularly significant problem among girls. Girls are routinely underdiagnosed when it comes to autism.

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