Empowering Autistic Girls and Women

Triad of Impairments


Individuals who have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Condition have difficultys in three main areas ,this is referred to as the Triad of Impairments and this is the way Autism has been understood for a very long time however new research is providing much clearer definitions of the challenges faced by Autistic individuals .

Neuro -typical Communication

An individual who has good social communication skills will be able to

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Process what is been said to them almost immediately
  • Interpret facial expressions
  • Interpret hand gestures
  • Interpret body language

And all this whilst all the while adhering  to social rules

Social Communication and Language

People with autism have difficulty understanding verbal & non-verbal communication, they can often misread facial expression, gestures and social cues and often find it difficult to communicate effectively with other people

Because they do not understand the rules of social behaviour they  may say things or display behaviours that do not fit into the “social norm ” during childhood this is often seen as rudeness which further affects their ability to socialise as self-esteem lessens the more the individual is criticised for their behaviour .

Non Verbal 

Those who are severely autistic  may never develop speech and may appear to have an absence of any desire to communicate and may have little or no form of expressive communication and poor understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication .This does not mean that these individuals cannot communicate many use Makaton and picts and other visual methods of communication .Some communicate by the use of clicks of the tongue or by eye movements .New technologies have increased the possibilities for Non verbal individuals

Communication  Challenged 

There is a clear impairment of comprehension and use of language and non-verbal communication

Often the onset of speech was delayed .The individual  may often use unusual repetitive language such as repeating what you have said to them or repeating  the last word of your sentence when asked a question. Others may say things more than once which is known as echolalia and may have favourite words that they will repeat over and over.

Individuals that are verbally challenged will have difficulty explaining how they feel and may appear to have little self-control laughing or speaking at inappropriate times. Often they have developed social language by mimicking others and may not fully understand what they have learnt .Much like an Actor learning a section of a script but having no idea what the plot of the story is

Those who are verbally challenged find the social rules of white lies and socially acceptable subjects confusing .They do not understand sarcasm or making fun of someone because they cannot understand that people don’t always mean what they say .The Autistic  individual cannot understand why someone would say something that they don’t mean !
Individuals don’t understand the subtleties of social communication such as white lies and will often be completely honesty and this radical honesty  can lead to AS individuals been seen as lacking tact  – telling the truth all the time can make someone very unpopular.

Difficulty’s with social imagination means it is hard to imagine what a person is going to do or say next and this can lead someone who is verbally challenged to be very anxious in new environments

There is often an  absence or impairment of two-way social interaction and verbal communication is often only used as an expression of needs rather than to instigate social engagement .They have difficulty knowing how to initiate and maintain a conversation with others . They also find it difficult to read between the lines of what people mean and often miss hidden meanings which can lead to a level of vulnerability as it can be difficult to judge a persons intentions .

Many verbally challenged individuals asks repetitive questions this may be because they are having difficulties processing incoming verbal input or to manage their anxiety’s

It can be difficult for those who are verbally challenged to seek help because having the ability to talk often fools people into believing that you are more capable than you really are .They find it difficult to communicate their needs efficiently enough to get the appropriate help and understanding and are highly  frustrated  at  their own difficulties in explaining to others why certain situations create unsolvable difficulties


People at the higher end of the Spectrum often have good expressive verbal communication but they may have difficulties in a two-way conversation ,

Those who are less affected tend to  develop fluent language, but even though they appear to have good verbal skills the ability to use this language is impaired though speech may be  perfectly grammatical

These extremely high functioning individuals frequently show no interest in other people’s opinions or interests. They will often talks incessantly about their own interests regardless of the response of others ,They miss all the social cues that someone is not interested or bored.

Communication is often based around  factual comments which are  often irrelevant to the social situation and contain none of the social niceties of chit chat they may talk at you and seem to have no interest in your opinion if it differs from their  beliefs.
They may talk obsessively on a topic that is of interest to them and be unable to draw the conversation to an end independently. Even though individuals with this level of communication have better verbal and processing skills they still  take the spoken word literally this can lead to confusion and many misunderstandings.

It may appear that these individuals have a lack of empathy for others and there are going to be some that this is the case for but for many it is slow processing and an inability to understand the complexities of the other person’s emotions and then knowing how to say something that is appropriate ,Often these individuals are compassionate but just don’t know how to express it correctly .


For many individuals on the spectrum processing verbal and non-verbal communication can be difficult and present challenges .

• Difficulty processing and interpreting body language facial expression and gesture and tone of voice
• Avoiding eye contact (because they cannot process the information overload of speech, facial expression and body language).
• Difficulty processing and retaining verbal information ,
• Have difficulty fully comprehending the meaning of words
• Following long or complicated sentences
• They might only be able to follow one simple instruction at a time
• Understand words and phrases literally .
• Difficulties in generalising concepts
• Difficulty understanding jokes and sarcasm and social use of language
• Impairment of creative imaginative concepts
• Difficulty in understanding that other people see things from a different point of view
• Not realizing when the person they are talking to is cross or tired.
• Have a poor concept of time and limited ability to think of events in the future .
• Difficulties in distinguishing between ‘pretend’ and reality.

Social imagination allows us to understand and predict other people’s behaviour  People with Autism are said to lack the Theory of Mind meaning that they find it difficult to imagine what other people are thinking, to empathise or see how their actions might affect another person. To imagine the world from someone else’s perspective and understand that other people may have different thoughts and feelings from their own and also how to interpret other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions. to make sense of abstract ideas and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine. Predict what will happen next, or what could happen next. It can lead to difficulty’s managing unstructured parts of the Day

Understand the concept of danger, for example that running on to a busy road poses a threat to them.

May be due to living with high anxiety as the stress response system shuts down the rational part of the brain

Understanding Social Rules 

This can include situations such as :

  • Standing too close or not close enough when talking to someone this may be a lack of understanding of personal space or maybe a misunderstanding of complex social rules or may be because of sensory and perception issues
  • Difficulty understanding the ‘rules of society’ and identifying what is expected behaviour in different situations. Not to laugh in church or shout loudly in the supermarket !
  • Inappropriate touching of other people .May be simply sensory seeking
  • Difficulty understanding and using non-verbal behaviour so uses very little body language or gesture or may be masking anxiety signs so the most they can achieve is blocking all behaviours .Freeze mode
  • Unaware of the different ways to interact with friends ,staff ,strangers etc. Let’s face it ,it is complicated why don’t we just call people by their name ? Isn’t that what it’s for ?
    Appears to pay little attention to the needs or feelings of others and or shows lack of understanding of social rules and understanding of social hierarchy like why its Ok to call your friend fat but you can’t call your teacher fat .
  • Have difficulties in turn taking especially in conversation and if the subject is one of their special interests and they may interrupt you during a conversation because an exciting bit of information has just come to mind .

Many people with AS want to have friends and relationships but struggle to initiate and maintain these .They have no idea how to read the signals of other people and have difficulty using gestures and expressions such as the social smile and the casual cool pose
Over time when your attempts at social interaction don’t work and you don’t understand what you are saying or doing wrong you stop trying and this leads to those with AS not sharing  interest or enjoyment Often because other people don’t share their deep level of interest in a subject or enjoy and get satisfaction from the same things .

Criticism and Bullying lead to those with AS been anxious and self-conscious around strangers and this further adds to social difficulties

Social Interaction and Emotional Difficulty’s

Because those with AS don’t interact in the same way it is difficult for them to interact with their peers .But many  seek social contact in new ways ,such as meeting with others with similar interests and social media and forums

A person with classic autism may appear withdrawn, aloof or completely un -interested in the people they meet and often find it very difficult to be around other people . Their ability to develop reciprocal relationships is generally very limited.

Others may show too much affection and not understand social boundary’s

Those at the other end of the spectrum are often very aware that they have difficulties and this can lead to high levels of anxiety . They may want to make friends and even crave social interaction but are awkward or clumsy in social situations. and often lack the social skills to interact in a conventional way.

It is difficult for them to understand non-verbal signals, including facial expressions, which make it difficult for them to form and maintain social relationships with people who are unaware of their needs.

to an Individual with a communication difficulty social interaction is filled with anxiety and fears

I don’t know what to say next !

I don’t understand what you’re saying I don’t know what you want me to say to you !

Should I say hello or just walk past .I need more time to process this information .

Your voice is too loud it makes me anxious

I don’t know which script I should use

I,m trying to process what mood you are in while trying to plan what I have to say next .What is appropriate to say and what isn’t .

I,m so busy trying not to use self-stimulatory behaviour to calm anxieties that I find it difficult to focus on anything else

When trying to interact social an individual with AS will be trying to concentrate on staying calm and use appropriate gestures because this does not come naturally ,they are using every coping strategies that they have and are already anxious before they even speak .This maybe because you are standing too close or are touching them All the time they are trying to concentrate on getting it right whilst all the time knowing that they are supposed to be concentrating on the other person instead of concentrating on their own needs and interests .
So far from being cold and unemotional as those on the spectrum are often perceived they are  overly emotional and  overwhelmed by emotions This is due to  emotional regulation and over activity of the stress response system .

Research has shown that those on the spectrum  have fewer mirror neurons ,.Mirror neurons are nerves in the brain that cause us to empathise with what others are feeling quickly .This doesn’t affect the ability to empathise it just slows down the processing .this is why those who are Autistic  can appear calm in a crisis situation but will then collapse from the stress later It can take a while  to process and fully  perceive how others feel and this can upset those who are neurotypical as they expect an immediate and appropriate response .

Social Imagination and Flexibility of Thought

Difficulties with social imagination mean that people with autism have limited development of interpersonal play & imagination and have a  lack of flexibility of thought this often shows during childhood as a lack of pretend play and will often play the same game over and over again in a very systemic way .This shouldn’t be confused with creative imagination as many of those on the spectrum have a deep imagination and escape into fantasy worlds ,there are some fantastic writers actors and artists that are autistic

An Autistic child  will rarely engage in interpersonal or imaginative play unless it is something they have copied, in which case they often pursue this rigidly and repetitively.  i.e. lining up toys or repeatedly watching the same video. Also many have difficulty comprehending time and predicting the future or what may happen.

Most Autistic individuals with will find change difficult to manage and even upsetting. Preparing  for change and planning  for the future are all challenging . Having to cope in new or unfamiliar situations and changes in routine can all lead to anxiety and agitation .Most prefer to order their day according to a set pattern, which provides continuity and stability for them.Any breaks in routine can cause immense anxiety and or panic attacks where daily functioning becomes, at worst, impossible.

Autistic Individuals  often have a pre-occupation with narrow range of interests and follow rigid routines and many will develop obsessive interests, hobbies or collections and with encouragement these interests can be developed positively into areas of study or employment in their favourite subjects.

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