Autism Primer: Twenty Questions and Answers by TEACCH and Autism Society of North Carolina

ASNC Primer 20 Questions

Third Edition - 07/99

1. What is Autism?

Autism is a life-long developmental disability that prevents individuals from properly understanding what they see, hear, and otherwise sense. This results in severe problems of social relationships, communication, and behavior.

Individuals with autism have to painstakingly learn normal patterns of speech and communication, and appropriate ways to relate to people, objects, and events, in a similar manner to those who have had a stroke.

2. What are the characteristics of autism?

The degree of severity of characteristics differs from person to person, but usually includes the following:

Severe delays in language development.
Language is slow to develop, if it develops at all. If it does develop, it usually includes peculiar speech patterns or the use of words without attachment to their normal meaning. Those who are able to use language effectively may still use unusual metaphors or speak in a formal and monotone voice.

Severe delays in understanding social relationships.
The autistic child often avoids eye contact, resists being picked up, and seems to "tune out" the world around him. This results in a lack of cooperative play with peers, an impaired ability to develop friendships, and an inability to understand other people's feelings.

Inconsistent Patterns of sensory responses.
The child who has autism at times may appear to be deaf and fail to respond to words or other sounds. At other times, the same child may be extremely distressed by an everyday noise such as a vacuum cleaner or a dog's barking. The child also may show an apparent insensitivity to pain and a lack of responsiveness to cold or heat, or may over-react to any of these.

Uneven patterns of intellectual functioning.
The individual may have peak skills - scattered things done quite well in relation to overall functioning - such as drawing, music, computations in math, or memorization of facts with no regard to importance or lack of it. On the other hand, the majority of autistic persons have varying degrees of mental retardation, with only 20 percent having average or above-average intelligence. This combination of intellectual variations makes autism especially perplexing.

Marked restriction of activity and interests.
A person who has autism may perform repetitive body movements, such as hand flicking, twisting, spinning, or rocking. This individual may also display repetition by following the same route, the same order of dressing, or the same schedule everyday, etc. If changes occur in these routines, the preoccupied child or adult usually becomes very distressed.

3. What causes autism?

Autism is a brain disorder, present from birth, which affects the way the brain uses information. The cause of autism is still unknown. Some research suggests a physical problem affecting those parts of the brain that process language and information coming in from the senses. There may be some imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain. Genetic factors may sometimes be involved. Autism may indeed result from a combination of several "causes".

No factors in the psychological environment of the child cause autism.

4. How common is autism?

Autism is one of the four major developmental disabilities. It occurs in 1 in every 110 births. There are approximately 50,000 people with autism in North Carolina.

5. Who is affected with autism?

Autism is distributed throughout the world among all races, nationalities, and social classes. Four of every five people with autism are male.

6. What is the most common problem in autism?

Individuals with autism have extreme difficulty in learning language and social skills and in relating to people.

7. How does autism affect behavior?

In addition to severe language and socialization problems, people with autism often experience extreme hyperactivity or unusual passivity in relating to parents, family members, and other people.

8. How severe are behavior problems in people with autism?

In autism, behavior problems range from very severe to mild. Severe behavior problems take the form of highly unusual, aggressive, and in some cases, even self-injurious behavior. These behaviors may persist and be difficult to change.

In its milder form., autism resembles a learning disability. Usually, however, even people who are only mildly affected are substantially handicapped due to deficits in the areas of communication and socialization.

9. Does autism occur in conjunction with other disabilities?

Autism can occur by itself or in association with other developmental disorders such as mental retardation, learning disabilities, epilepsy, etc.

Autism is best considered as a disability on a continuum from mild to severe. The number of handicaps and degree of mental retardation will determine the location on that continuum.

10. What is the difference between Autism and Mental Retardation?

Most people with mental retardation show relatively even skill development, while individuals with autism typically show uneven skill development with deficits in certain areas - most frequently in their ability to communicate and relate to others - and distinct skills in other areas.

It is important to distinguish autism from mental retardation or other disorders since diagnostic confusion may result in referral to inappropriate and ineffective treatment techniques.

11. Can people with autism be helped?

Yes, autism is treatable. Studies show that all people who have autism can improve significantly with proper instruction. Many individuals with autism eventually become more responsive to others as they learn to understand the world around them.

12. How can persons with autism learn best?

Through specially trained teachers, using specially structured programs that emphasize individual instruction, persons with autism can learn to function at home and in the community. Some can lead nearly normal lives.

13. What kinds of jobs can individuals with autism do?

In general, individuals with autism perform best at jobs which are structured and involve a degree of repetition.

Some people who have autism are working as artists, piano tuners, painters, farm workers, office workers, computer operators, dishwashers, assembly line workers, or competent employees of sheltered workshops or other sheltered work settings.

14. What leisure activities do persons with autism enjoy?

Individuals who have autism often enjoy the same recreational activities as their non-handicapped peers. They usually like music, swimming, hiking, camping, working puzzles, playing table games, etc.

15. What services are available for people with autism in North Carolina?

There are public school classrooms, a summer residential camp, group homes, social skills training, job training, and life planning services for persons with autism in North Carolina for persons with autism in North Carolina.

16. What additional services are needed for children with autism in North Carolina?

Children with autism need:

  • respite care
  • before and after-school care
  • summer programs
  • recreational programs
  • group homes
  • other residential living options
  • prevocational training
  • summer school programs

17. What do people with autism need when they become adults?

Adults with autism need:

  • vocational training
  • job opportunities
  • group homes
  • supervised apartments
  • other residential living options
  • recreational opportunities

18. How can people who have autism learn meaningful job skills?

With the help of specially trained job coaches, people with autism can learn skills that will enable them to successfully work in competitive employment, supported employment, or in sheltered workshop programs.

19. In what ways can persons with autism have relative independence in living?

They can learn skills to live as independently as possible through specifically designed programs in group homes and supervised apartments.

20. What groups in North Carolina are working to help people with autism?

TEACCH Administration and Research
CB# 7180; 100 Renee Lynne Court
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,  Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7180
(919) 966-2174 Fax: (919) 966-4127

TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped CHildren), located in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina, is the statewide program for the diagnosis, treatment and education of children and adults with autism and similar developmental disorders. Holding a position of national leadership in services for clients with autism and related disorders, it has been cited by the National Institute of Mental Health as "the most effective statewide program in this country".
505 Oberlin Road, Suite 230 Raleigh, NC 27605-1345
(919)743-0204  or (800)442-2762 (In NC) Fax: (919)743-0208
The Autism Society of North Carolina is an association of parents, professionals, students, and others which is dedicated to raising the visibility  of autism and broadening services for individuals who have autism and related disorders of communication and behavior. The organization furnishes support to parents, information and referral, residential summer camp, job coach services, public education, advocacy, group home development, guardianship and life planning services, and news and information to statewide media.
Exceptional Children's Assistance Center (ECAC), Incorporated
Post Office Box 16 - Davidson, NC 28036-0016
In NC (800) 962-6817 or (704) 892-1321 Fax: (704) 892-5028
Since 1980, The Exceptional Children's Assistance Center (ECAC) has grown from an all volunteer parent organization to a full service parent training and information center serving families in North Carolina. ECAC now employees 20 full and part-time staff members and, in addition to the main office in Davidson, has satellite offices in Raleigh and New Bern.
The Arc of North Carolina
P.O. Box 20545
16 E. Rowan Street, Suite 204, Raleigh, NC 27619
(919) 782-4632 Fax: (919) 782-4634
The Arc of North Carolina has been advocating for people with developmental disabilities since 1953. That advocacy has resulted in improved educational, occupational, recreational and residential opportunities. While we have made significant gains, we have a long way to go and advocacy remains our priority. Our 44 chapters have membership totaling approximately 4,800 people, the vast majority of whom are people with disabilities and family members.


Residential Services, Incorporated
P.O. Box 730, Carrboro, NC 27510
(919) 942-7391 Fax: (919) 933-4490

Residential Services, Incorporated, (RSI) is a private, non-profit organization that provides residential options for children and adults with developmental disabilities. For over 20 years they have helped persons with developmental disabilities strive towards independence in all areas of life, at home and in the community. RSI's goal is to provide the optimal environment in which an individual can pursue their own interests and realize their full potential at home, work, and leisure, with friends and family.
Duke University Medical Center
Box 3445, Durham, NC 27710
(800) 283-4316
DUKE CENTER FOR HUMAN GENETICS, The mission of the DUMC Center for Human Genetics (CHG) is the ongoing discovery of the genetic and epidemiologic basis of human disease, both rare and common. Using sophisticated and proven methodology long employed at Duke for the study of Alzheimer disease, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological disorders, we will continue to broaden the understanding of human genetics through research initiatives and will foster the development of new therapies for genetic disease. With millions of individuals affected by disorders such as heart disease, diabetes, glaucoma, osteoarthritis, mental illness, and cancer syndromes, we envision immense potential for applying our state-of-the-art technology and expertise to define the genetic basis of common disease, as well as to develop diagnostic and therapeutic strategies.


TEACCH and Autism Society of North Carolina