How an autistic child's brain works
Learn to understand your autistic child.

What is autism?

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder (neurological condition) where there are clusters of difficulties in 4 major areas. “Autism is an invisible disability,” says Reinette Palmer, Deputy Director of Children’s Disability Centre. “You can see no difference between him and his peers. It’s his behaviour that differs.”

Autistic children’s brains are wired in a different way. This can be understood by comparing the brain to a night light: some night lights work by being turned on at the plug, others need you to click an additional switch on the cable before they provide light. Both lamps work well. Neither is less valuable than the other. But they are different. They work only in the way they are wired.

Wired to think in an inflexible manner

  • Autistic children think through details rather than categories. For example, they see a bar stool as something which has a round vinyl cushion with four pieces of wood below. A dining room chair is a new entity because the details differ. To group them according to function, as furniture to sit on, is foreign to the autistic mind.
  • Thoughts are concrete and occur in terms of pictures rather than words. If the child hasn’t seen something before, it’s not stored on his visual memory of images, so they are unable to think it. For example, when you talk about “beautiful”, he has to learn a visual connection to the word, such as a flower, before they can draw on that thought.
  • Thinking is literal; imagination is stunted. For example, if you tell the child to hop on the toilet, he will take it that you want him to hop on one leg on the toilet seat rather than sit on the toilet.
  • Change causes anxiety. Each time a new detail is added, a whole new concept has to develop. This means, if you take the name label off the child’s room door, it no longer appears to be his room. This lack of understanding rather than malicious behaviour leads to resistance to change.

Oversensitive or under-responsive to sensations

  • Some autistic children’s brains have the volume knob turned way up. Each sensation comes booming out. For example, if you tap your child on his arm it feels like you hit him with a hammer.
  • Other children’s sensory volume buttons are turned way down low. For example, when you hug the child, he squeezes you too tight and holds you for a long time. His talking voice appears set at shouting volume, but to him it sounds just right.

Communication problems

  • Speech is affected. There may be none, limited or unusual speech. For example, an autistic child may have learnt to shout and perform a “high five” to greet from television and he will repeat this with an American accent. They often convey facts rather than conversation through speech.
  • Gestures are often missing from their communication. For example, they may want the ball but won’t put out their hand to indicate this.
  • A lack of understanding of social rules may lead to an autistic child imposing on your personal space or making a rude comment about your hairstyle. This is not because he is inconsiderate or nasty, he simply doesn’t understand what is required of him.
  • Some autistic children lack the desire to communicate with others. They are not choosing to ignore you they simply do not think to include you.

Relationship difficulties

  • "Mind blindness" means autistic children are unable to place themselves in other’s situations to understand how they may feel. This is made challenging by their inability to decipher facial expressions. For example, they don’t know what it looks like to feel happy or sad.

Did you know?

In South Africa every hour a child who will develop autism is born. There are 638 new cases every month.


  1. Each child comes with a "how to” manual. It’s written by their personal experiences and the details they have clung onto in their lives. If you want to open the door to a friendship, learn which buttons to push to make your intentions understood.
  2. Think of autistic children as trains and typical children as cars. Trains don’t change lanes or move around obstacles but if you allow them to stay on their tracks they will reach their destination.

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