Alternative autism criteria

I’ve written a much-improved updated version of this. Click here to see it!

Since my diagnosis I’ve been irritated with all the information about autism using the ‘triad of impairments’. If you haven’t heard of it (where have you been?!), the triad is “social communication”, “social interaction”, and “[social] imagination”.

There are so many reasons why the triad of impairments is flawed. It doesn’t reflect any actual diagnostic criteria, so there’s no need for it. The distinctions between the three sections are vague and poorly-defined, so that pretty much any trait could fit into any one of them. Then there’s the fact that it actually misses out many of the most significant traits, because it only focuses on external social elements (because… *sigh*, it was written by NT people who just described the traits most apparent to them).

So, I decided to write my own. This isn’t a set of diagnostic criteria – I’m not a professional and I don’t know how to diagnose autism. It’s simply an overview of common traits with examples, divided into (what I think are) logical categories. If I could have my way, every leaflet about “what is autism” would contain this – rather than the useless and nonsensical triad of impairments.


  • Differences in body language and nonverbal communication. E.g.:
    • Reduced eye contact.
    • Reduced variation in vocal tone.
    • Unusually loud or quiet speech.
    • Different or reduced use of gestures.
    • Reduced use of facial expressions.
  • Differences in verbal communication. E.g.:
    • Preference for speaking in ‘paragraphs’ over back-and-forth interaction.
    • Difficulty using words in some situations, such as under stress.
    • Use of echolalia and/or scripts in communication.
    • Preference for text-based communication.
  • Differences in interaction and social relationships. E.g.:
    • Reduced desire for social relationships.
    • Preference for one-to-one or small group interactions.
    • Preference for functional and pragmatic interactions over social ‘chit-chat’.
    • Difficulty forming or maintaining social relationships.


  • Hypersensitivity to one or more senses or specific sensations. (e.g. bright light, specific textures, strong smells). Demonstrated by pain, illness, discomfort, or avoidance of certain sensations.
  • Hyposensitivity to one or more senses or specific sensations. (e.g. pain, temperature, taste). Demonstrated by failure to notice, react to, or distinguish certain sensations.
  • Sensory seeking. Demonstrated by stimming (self-stimulation) behaviour in one or more ways. E.g:
    • Fascination and staring at lights or moving objects.
    • Pressure from weighted objects or body weight.
    • Vestibular sensations such as swinging, rocking, and spinning.
    • Moving limbs and/or objects such as hand flapping, fiddling with toys, hair twirling.
    • Desire for specific smells or tastes.


  • Intense and/or specific interests. E.g.:
    • Spending the majority of time focused on few interests
    • Interest in a very narrow, unusual or specific subject area.
    • Desire to learn all facts and information about interests.
    • In-depth and expert knowledge of interest area.
    • Interest primarily enjoyed alone, without consideration of social implications.
  • Preference for routine and sameness. E.g.:
    • Specific routines for days, weeks, or certain activities.
    • Distress and disorientation when routines are disrupted.
    • Preference for doing things the same way as always.
    • Preference for planning things carefully in advance.
    • Anxiety in new or unfamiliar situations.


  • Difficulty with executive function. E.g.:
    • Poor short-term/working memory.
    • Difficulty planning and executing a series of actions.
    • Difficulty identifying and solving problems.
    • Difficulty concentrating on relevant information.
    • Difficulty starting, stopping, or changing activities.
  • Differences in understanding or processing emotions. E.g.:
    • Mistaking physical sensations for emotions, or vice-versa.
    • Difficulty identifying or naming own emotions.
    • Difficulty recognising or understanding other’s emotions.
    • Preference for using logic over emotions in decision-making.
    • Do not externally express emotions.
  • Detail-focused thinking style. E.g.:
    • Tendency to notice specific details before, or instead of, overall ‘big picture’.
    • Difficulty generalising from specific examples.
    • Difficulty noticing implied messages.
    • Skilled in identifying minor errors such as typos.
  • Love of patterns and systems. E.g.:
    • Talent for systematising subjects such as music, mathematics, science, puzzles, languages.
    • Enjoyment from organising and arranging information or objects.
    • Skilled in recognising patterns.
    • Preference for learning from systems before examples.

5 thoughts on “Alternative autism criteria

  1. I must have been living under a rock. I didn’t know the term “triad of impairments.” It’s rather an insulting description to start with. Impairment is so negative and implying wrongness. What were they thinking? I prefer your title “What is Autism?” much better.
    Top people in their field focus and excel and create new ideas, concepts, art or products or perform amazing feats for us all. To focus and enjoy a narrow field is to allow curiosity and passion. This doesn’t have to be just one area either. This is not an impairment this is an advancement. I don’t suggest that the term be renamed “triad of advancements” but some of the autism traits are amazing, just saying.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder if the triad of impairments is a uniquely British thing – are you in the US?
      I agree about the language used. I tried to make my phrasing as value-neutral as possible in my version – e.g. “differences in body language”, rather than “deficits in body language”.


  2. I hate the triad of impairments, for exactly the reasons you said. It’s about nonautistic people pathologising us and focusing on things that aren’t the most important to actual Autistic people. Your post shows that autism is much more complex than just a lack of three types of social skill. We think and perceive differently, and our ways of communicating are as valid as nonautistic people’s.

    Liked by 1 person

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