Autism Basics for Exchange Professionals

A young American woman dines at an outdoor restaurant.
An American college student with Asperger syndrome dines at an outdoor restaurant in Spain.
Brush up on your understanding of neurological differences, respectful language and related lingo so you can advise your participant with confidence.

What is Autism?

The "spectrum" in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a wide range of neurological differences that affect a variety of people. Autistic people, like neurotypical (e.g. non-autistic) people, have different intelligence levels, ranging from those who have savant talents related to memory of facts, languages, music, or numbers to those with average intelligence to others with cognitive or intellectual disabilities.

The range of abilities for people with autism is wide. Autistic people's means of communication and self-expression vary, from verbal to non- or low-verbal. The visibility of an autistic person's disability will also vary along the spectrum, ranging from apparent to non-apparent. You may have already had an exchange participant who is autistic without even realizing it!

What Are Some Behaviors Associated with Autism?

Autism generally impacts a person's communication and social skills, which may present some unique experiences in an international exchange setting. Some people may experience hypersensitivity to light, smell, sounds, tastes, and textures/touch or shutting down of the senses (hypo-sensitivity). They may respond to overstimulation by using rocking or flapping motions (called "stimming") or by focusing on fine details or objects that are used as a soothing mechanism. In addition, spatial, social, dexterity, and other issues may impact them when interacting with others such as:

  • Difficulty with reading social cues, body language, subtle facial expressions or remembering faces;
  • Lack of social give-and-take conversational skills – not knowing when to stop talking and interrupting the conversational flow;
  • Empathy that is not obvious to the other person since feeling responses may not be triggered by the same things or expressed the same as the other person;
  • Awkward physical coordination.

Autistic people do not "grow out of" their neurological difference. However, some autistic people acquire ways to make their autistic traits less apparent in daily interactions with neurotypical people and to decrease some of the sensory impact. They may become skilled at mimicking non-autistic people’s behaviors or become ritualistic in their daily routines. In addition, some autistic people excel in areas that frequently impact international exchange programs or experiences, including following program rules or policies diligently or rising to the intellectual challenge of learning a new language.

Respectful Language and Lingo

Autistic person vs. person with autism - While many people in the disability community embrace "person-first" language when describing someone with a disability (i.e. "person with a disability"), many autistic people advocate for "identity-first" language (e.g. "autistic person" rather than "person with autism"). Your student or participant may prefer one term over the other or may use them interchangeably.

Neurodiverse - Describes the differences in how people's, including autistic people's, minds are wired. For this reason, some advocates see autism as a difference rather than a disability. Neurodiversity also celebrates, rather than pathologizes or seeks a cure for, autism and neuological differences.

Neurotypical - Non-autistic person. Do not use the phrase "normal person" in place of "neurotypical person/non-autistic person."

Verbal/non-verbal/low-verbal - Describes a person who does or does not use speech as a primary form of communication. Terms like "mute" and "dumb" should not be used. Even verbal autistic people may struggle with speech at times, especially under conditions of sensory overload. Alternative forms of communication may include using assistive technology, sign language, or other methods allow them to express their thoughts and intelligence.

Under Documents, use the access information forms and advisor guidelines to learn more about questions to ask and plans to make.

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