Autism Spectrum Disorders and Communication

About Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

What are Autism Spectrum Disorders

The term “Autism Spectrum Disorder” refers to a developmental disorder that can cause severe social, communication and behavioral challenges. It is often used as an “umbrella term” that has, in the past, described range of separate disorders including:

  • Autistic Disorder or Classic Autism
  • Asperger’s Disorder or Asperger Syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
  • Rett’s Disorder or Rett Syndrome
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder



The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V, provides standardized criteria to help diagnose ASD. While Asperger’s and PDD-NOS used to be considered separate diagnoses, they now fall under the broader ASD umbrella.  


People with ASD tend to have communication deficits, such as responding inappropriately in conversations, misreading nonverbal interactions, or having difficulty building friendships appropriate to their age. In addition, people with ASD may be overly dependent on routines, highly sensitive to changes in their environment, or intensely focused on inappropriate items. The symptoms of people with ASD will fall on a continuum, with some individuals showing mild symptoms and others having much more severe symptoms. This means that those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder have certain characteristics in common, which may be demonstrated different ways by different people.


Diagnostic criteria includes:

  1. Impairments in Social Communication and Social Interactions
  2. Restricted, repetitive Behaviors, interests and activities (RRBs) e.g., reduced or perseverative range of interests, self-stimulating movements like hand-flapping)


Therefore, people with the diagnosis of ASD are impacted in their ability to communicate and interact socially with others. If no RRBs are present, then Pragmatic language impairment (PLI), or social (pragmatic) communication disorder (SCD) may be diagnosed. There may be other disorders that may coexist, or be concomitant with, ASD, such as other Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (e.g., intellectual disability, communication disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, specific learning disorder or motor disorders), Sensory Processing Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, Bipolar Disorders, etc.  While not included in the diagnostic criteria for ASDs, sensory processing difficulties often co-occur.




What is it like to have autism?

There are many great descriptions of autism, from the people who experience it everyday. Some examples of books by authors with autism include:

  • The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, by Naoki Higashida
  • Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, by John Elder Robison
  • Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet
  • Pretending to Be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome (Paperback), by Liane Holliday Willey
  • The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum (Hardcover), by Temple Grandin
It is never too late to expand the mind of a person on the autism spectrum.
Quote about autism by Temple Grandin


ASD and Communication Supports & Services

Services and supports can enhance communication for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Communication Services

There are a variety of services available to support the communication skills of people with ASD. Some popular options include:

  • Speech-language therapy (including pragmatic/social language)
  • Verbal behavior therapy
  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
  • Pivotal Response Training (PRT)
  • Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)

Communication Supports (Assistive Technology)

Assistive technology includes any device, item, and/or piece of equipment that is used to support daily-life functions (for people with disabilities), including communication. When assistive technology targets communication, the term “augmentative and alternative communication” (AAC) is used.

Visual Supports

Visual supports can be used to assist the person in communicating and participating in his environment. Simple, printable visuals can help his understanding and his expression. These “low-tech” supports can be customized to offer the specific, unique vocabulary and symbols types for the person (e.g., photo of his grandma with label “nana”).


Some easy-to-find options for pictures are: circular advertisements for grocery or toy stores, pieces of food wrappers or boxes, internet search on “Google” then “Images.” Note: due to the personalized and inexpensive nature of visual supports, most of these items are not available from lending libraries.


There are resources freely available on the internet to help you select visual supports for students with ASDs.  The include the following.


Picture of a communication flip book



Picture exchange systems (each picture is separate and can attach by Velcro to a notebook or sentence strip to help the person combine words)Visual supports for communication include:

  • Communication books (pictures arranged 1 or more to a page and placed in a photo album, 3-ring binder, etc.).
  • Core Communication Boards (Single page boards with a focus on high frequency words


Visual supports for behavior.

We all use visual supports to shape our behavior!

         However, for those on the autism spectrum, visual supports can play an important role in clarifying expectations, supporting social skills, and providing structure to the day.  Examples include:

  • Visual Schedules (symbols representing each activity throughout the timeframe – these can be removed and placed in an “All Done” pocket as the schedule proceeds)

  • Social stories (narratives written from/by the person with autism, describing socially appropriate feelings and behaviors for situations)
  • “First-Then” Board (2 pictures to represent the current activity and the reward for completing it)

    • Token board (includes the “First-Then” from above, but adds “tokens” [like pennies, bingo chips, or stickers] that move after each trial to show how much of the current activity has been completed
    • Visual rules (images that represent expected behavior)
  • Visual timer (with the designated time shown in a colored segment that gets smaller as time runs out)
  • Contingency Maps

Mobile Technology

Mobile technology (iPads, smartphones, tablets) are becoming  an increasingly means to support the communication through the use of communication apps. These devices can be used to give a nonverbal student with autism a voice.  They make communication portable and easy to customize.  It is important that a student receive an individualized AAC evaluation, so that they can be given a device and app with the features that meet their specific needs.  There is no One Size Fits All when it comes to communication!

Learning More about ASD

PA-based Resources

Check out these Pennsylvania-based organizations that provide trainings specific to communication and autism spectrum disorders. For more information about trainings and events, see the Calendar page.



ASERT is a statewide initiative funded by the Bureau of Autism Services, PA Department of Human Services. The ASERT (Autism Services, Education, Resources and Training) Collaborative is a key component of the Bureau of Autism’s strategy for supporting individuals with autism and their families throughout the Commonwealth. It is our vision that ASERT will connect existing resources and pockets of expertise, and address the regional gaps in effective services and supports.


The Autism Cares Foundation

The Autism Cares Foundation assists in “unwinding” the twists and turns associated with navigating the system surrounding autism. The Autism Cares Foundation differentiates itself from other organizations raising funds for autism, as our funds provide direct benefit to the children and young adults afflicted with autism, helping to improve their life experiences today.


The Chestnut Hill College PDE Endorsement program in Autism Spectrum  Disorders.


Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN)

County-Specific and Online

The mission of the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network is to support the efforts and initiatives of the Bureau of Special Education, and to build the capacity of local educational agencies to serve students who receive special education services. The website includes: Parent Information, Training for Professionals (in-person events, instructor-led courses, and self-paced online courses), Support for Students, and Legal Information. For ASD-specific information, search “Autism” on:
Web-based Resources

Online resources provide information about autism spectrum disorders. Please see the selected list of resources below.


Autism Internet Modules (AIM)

The Autism Internet Modules were developed with one aim in mind: to make comprehensive, up-to-date, and usable information on autism accessible and applicable to educators, other professionals, and families who support individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Written by experts from across the U.S., all online modules are free, and are designed to promote understanding of, respect for, and equality of persons with ASD. NOTE – a free sign-in account is need to access these resources.


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Kathryn Helland

Kathryn is a certified speech-language pathologist and works with children and adults with complex communication needs. She has been with the TechOWL team since 2015 and is currently working on her doctorate. She would like to examine how to best support AAC users in higher education.

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