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5 Ways Autism is Different from Other Special Needs

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Like with any disability, autism is unique. It is a disability that has its challenges, symptoms, and celebrations. Individuals with autism are amazing people and have so much to offer anyone who works with them. The word different doesn’t need to have a negative connotation surrounding it. Different can be wonderful, unique, creative, talented, kind, etc. Those who are in the lives of people with autism should learn more about their special needs and embrace their differences. 

The most recent comprehensive data on the prevalence of autism in the United States comes from a March 2020 CDC report. It was found that approximately 1 in 54 eight-year-old children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Someone who studies psychology, education, or the care of children with special needs should learn and understand more about those disabilities, as they directly correlate with their job responsibilities. Knowing the ins and outs of autism and how complex and individualized the disorder can be will only help and benefit parents, teachers, and other professionals who work with those on the spectrum. 

Recognizing how autism is different from other pervasive developmental disorders can make it much easier for those working with children and adults with autism. 

Five ways in which autism is different from other special needs are below—keep reading to learn more!

See Also: What are the 10 Most Common Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

1. Autism is a Spectrum

Autism is a spectrum, which means that its symptoms range from mild and few to severe and many. One person with autism might have several mild symptoms and one severe one, while another might have a different set of symptoms and severity. Clinical settings and schools describe autism by its levels, typically levels one, two, and three. Level one consists of individuals who need some support but not much, level two requires substantial support, and level three requires even more support. In addition, Asperger’s syndrome is a form of ASD and is considered the mildest type on the spectrum. 

For reference, below are examples of how the three levels of autism are differentiated by symptoms and need. 

Level 1: Requiring Support

“For example, a person who can speak in full sentences and engages in communication but whose to-and-fro conversation with others fails, and whose attempts to make friends are odd and typically unsuccessful.”

“Inflexibility of behavior causes significant interference with functioning in one or more contexts.”

Level 2: Requiring Substantial Support

“For example, a person who speaks simple sentences, whose interaction is limited to narrow special interests, and who has markedly odd nonverbal communication.”

“Inflexibility of behavior, difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors appear frequently enough to be obvious to the casual observer and interfere with functioning in  a variety of contexts.”

Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support 

“For example, a person with few words of intelligible speech who rarely initiates interaction and, when he or she does, makes unusual approaches to meet needs only and responds to only very direct social approaches.”

“Inflexibility of behavior, extreme difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors markedly interfere with functioning in all spheres.”

The earlier that an autism diagnosis is made, the better the chance the person has to develop the communication and behavioral skills that are needed for social integration and personal relationships.

2. Exhibition of Odd and Repetitive Behaviors

People with autism often exhibit odd or repetitive behaviors. For example, they might have to tap their pencil three times before writing a word. They may only want to eat white food or wear blue shirts. While this may seem strange to outsiders, these behaviors are quite common among individuals on the spectrum. 

According to Spectrum News

“Scientists categorize repetitive behaviors into two groups. So-called ‘lower-order’ repetitive behaviors are movements such as hand-flapping, fidgeting with objects, or body rocking, and vocalizations such as grunting or repeating certain phrases. ‘Higher-order’ repetitive behaviors include autism traits such as routines and rituals, insistence on sameness and intense interests”.

Depending on the location and situation, these behaviors can seem disruptive—for example, if a student is repeatedly jumping up and down in their seat or calling out during class. But mostly, these repetitive actions are seen as a mild symptom of autism and are often considered more of a habit or quirk. 

3. Unusual and Creative Play

If one was to observe a child who has autism playing alone or collaboratively, their behaviors and interactions might look a lot different from a neuro-typical child. 

Individuals with autism are less likely to initiate social interactions when around others, play or work collaboratively, or play “make-believe.” They may also seem unaware of others around them and not care what the preferences and interests are of others. 

Children with autism may play with their toys in a way that is unusual or unexpected. For example, a child with autism may use their building blocks to create an intricate mosaic design instead of building a structure with them. A child might spin the wheels on a toy car instead of putting the car on a track or pushing the car on the floor. Or one might see a child with autism playing alone on the playground over by a tree instead of playing kickball with everyone else. 

The way undiagnosed children play and interact with others is sometimes a sign that they might need to be professionally observed and evaluated or ASD. However, there is nothing wrong with this type of play. Parents, teachers, and others can work with children with autism to teach them social skills and encourage them to interact more with their peers. 

4. Preoccupation With a Specific Topic

Oftentimes, individuals with autism become preoccupied with and perseverate on specific topics. This is a unique symptom of autism that isn’t necessarily a symptom of other disorders. These types of behaviors can correlate with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is a disorder that is sometimes identified in those with autism. A study shows that “individuals with OCD had a 13 times higher risk of having a comorbid autism spectrum diagnosis.” While a preoccupation with a specific topic can happen in those with OCD, the diagnosis isn’t always necessary. Some people who have autism do not have OCD and still have a preoccupation with ideas and topics. 

Intense interests, such as a boy constantly wanting to talk about and look at cars, or a girl collecting paperclips and staples from around the school and hoarding them, are examples of this. Of course, topics of interest and collections can be considered a hobby—although, there is a point where a hobby becomes an obsession or preoccupation. 

Questions to ask to determine if the behavior is merely a hobby or has become more than that:

When people with ASD become preoccupied or excessively focused on a narrow topic of interest, it can be difficult for others to have a conversation with them or encourage them to change the subject. 

If the preoccupation needs to be decreased, it is important to utilize strategies to help the individual manage their anxiety, as sometimes that is the root of the problem.

5. Uneven Cognitive Skills

When it comes to other developmental disabilities and special needs, a person’s cognitive abilities are usually consistent, and many disabilities are correlated with low cognitive skills. With autism, a person’s cognitive skills can be uneven. For example, a person with autism may have exceptional mathematical abilities and can carry out complex calculations in their head. They might excel in organic chemistry, figuring out reactions without writing them on paper. However, their writing and oral communication could be poor.

Another great example of this concept is that there are many individuals on the spectrum who are nonverbal yet are cognitively higher than one might assume. People who have communication deficits can also be intelligent, creative, and have wonderful talents. 

Ultimately, someone with uneven cognitive skills can independently function in various environments—they might just need extra help in particular areas. 


There are more than dozens of types of special needs—too many to list here. An autism diagnosis is just one out of the several that are a possibility. Each disability is unique in its way and it is the responsibility of caregivers, teachers, and professionals to discern the differences between them. 

A person with autism can go on to live a productive and satisfying life, especially if they have a strong support network of caring and capable people to guide them. People with autism may seem a little different, but they can achieve their potential and integrate into a group of their peers and their families with the support of others. Knowing how people with autism are different from other special needs helps others understand them better and be more accepting. 

Brittany Cerny

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

Updated January 2022


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