27 March 2023

​Understanding ASD

Autism is unique for each person. Autistic ākonga may need support to make sense of and effectively participate in the world.

On this page:

On this page:

Current page section: ​Understanding ASD

Go to top of current page: ​Understanding ASD

Show list of page sections


Autistic spectrum disorder or ASD is the name for a group of lifelong conditions that may affect communication, social interaction, and cognition (thinking). Asperger syndrome is part of the autism spectrum.

Video hosted on Youtube

Takiwātanga* is the Māori word for autism. It means ‘in my/their/his/her own time and space’.

Autism is characterised by different ways that people perceive the world, think and behave, and how they communicate and interact with others. 

Previous terms to describe autism include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Asperger's Syndrome.

Characteristics of autism

Although every autistic students or tāngata whaitakiwātanga is different there are some common characteristics which may include:

  • strengths in memorising and learning, especially in technical or logical subjects and reading (decoding)
  • a special area of interest
  • a preference for order and routine
  • finding social interactions challenging, especially responding to non-verbal and social cues
  • atypical development in speech, language and communication
  • challenges understanding and responding to non-literal communication such as irony, figurative language and nuance
  • sensory challenges
  • actively seeking and enjoying solitude
  • challenges managing and expressing emotions.

Autism is diagnosed on the basis of observed behaviour. There are no blood tests, single defining symptom or physical characteristics that are unique to Autism. 

Clinicians use careful observation of behaviours to determine whether a child’s challenges are related to Autism.

Tāngata whaitakiwātanga are unique

Dr Stephen Shore, an autism advocate who is autistic said, "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.”

Expect diversity when teaching autistic students. Ākonga may:

Sources: Altogether Autism, Neurological Foundation Autism, An Educator’s Guide to Autism | OAR

Video hosted on Youtube

The Aspire program asked a group of autistic people five questions about Autism.

Influence on learning

Autistic ākonga have a variety of different strengths and learning preferences. They experience their own set of challenges.

Common strengths and preferences Common challenges
Strong preference for well-planned, structured, predictable, routine-based environments Coping with change, unfamiliar routines, a lack of structure
Strong preference for quieter, clutter-free, organised spaces Sensory regulation
Special interest in particular topics and activities Settling into learning
Processes visual information quickly Processing and making sense of things, abstract thinking
Strong rote memory, retaining particular facts and details Expressing information and ideas
Honesty Verbal communication, social interaction
Special interests Engaging in learning that does not seem relevant

Expect diversity when teaching students with ASD

Some students may need help with all day-­to­-day tasks.

Others may need: 

  • support in specific areas
  • extended opportunities to explore and develop exceptional gifts and talents. Explore Twice-multi exceptional learners for more information.

Next steps

Return to the guide “ASD and learning”