Explaining Autism in 5 Minutes

I’ve just recently finished a graduate level communications class for which we had to present two 5-minute presentations. My first talk was about differences between the U.S. culture and other cultures in “smiling rates” and the understanding of when smiling is appropriate. I’ve decided to make my second speech about autism. The big stumbling block was time limit — how do you explain what autism is in less than five minutes? When I timed my first draft, it was 15 minutes long. I had to cut 2/3 of it!

I finally narrowed it down to what I thought the most important points were. Here it is, as I presented it, together with the slides. It’s hugely simplistic, I’m afraid.

Good evening.

You might remember my last presentation about foreigners who might behave differently than what you’re used to and expect.

Today I would like to talk to you about people who are a bit like foreigners in their own country.



Just a brief audience analysis – how many of you have heard the following terms: autism, Asperger’s Disorder? How many of you feel you could explain what these terms mean? (at that point only TWO out of fifteen people raised their hand)



Both Autistic Disorder and Asperger’s Disorder are part of so called Autism Spectrum Disorders or ASD, which also includes PDD-NOS – Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified, also called atypical autism, which is the diagnosis that my eight-year-old received several years ago.


Autistic Disorder was described several decades ago, in 1943. Asperger’s Disorder was first described in 1944.





Asperger’s Disorder is also frequently called “Asperger Syndrome” (with or without apostrophe s), or simply AS. By the way, you might also hear people with Asperger referring to themselves as “Aspies.”




So both the Autistic Disorder and Asperger’s Disorder were described in 1940s – quite a while ago. But they weren’t recognized as a disorder until fairly recently. Only in 1994, just fifteen years ago, ASD was included in the DSM-IV, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental illness.



Because autism is seen as a spectrum disorder, one person diagnosed with ASD (including PDD-NOS and Asperger’s) might be completely different than another. On one end of the spectrum you find have people who are severely affected – the might have no language and very limited or no ability to interact with others, at least not without the help of assistive technology. At the other end of the spectrum you might find people who have well developed language and average to superior intelligence.


So what is autism? It is a mental, developmental, or neurological disorder. Basically autism is a result of a different or atypical development of the brain.

To receive a diagnosis of autism a person needs to meet several diagnostic criteria. The full list is very long, but it boils down to three things: impairment in social interaction and communication, and repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.

Absent from the current diagnostic criteria are sensory issues that are quite common among people on the spectrum.

Let’s talk about social interaction first. People on the spectrum might have very limited eye contact, and as a result might be seen as shy, not interested, or hiding something. But for instance my son seems to be afraid of looking at eyes. He actually used to freak out when he saw a toy with abnormally large eyes.

People on the spectrum also have a hard time reading nonverbal clues — the tone of voice, facial expressions and body postures and gestures. Because of that might not realize, sometimes have no idea, when someone is insincere, or bored, or angry. That might lead to huge trouble in social situations. People on the spectrum are frequently laughed at and bullied, and also tricked or cheated.

The impairment in communication in people on the “light” end of the spectrum might manifest itself in their use and understanding of language. Aspies frequently do not understand the need for to “chit chat” or do “small talk” and are often not able to do that. On the other hand, they might have a tendency to go on and on and on about a topic that they passionately care about.

People on the spectrum also tend to be very direct and honest and often unintentionally appear rude because of that directness.

Also, their understanding of language, especially the semantics and pragmatics, is frequently impaired as well. They are frequently unable to read between the lines – understand the subtext, innuendo, or sarcasm.

All of the above issues can lead to huge problems with relationships. And it’s a myth that people on the autism spectrum don’t care about relationships. They do, but because autistic brains are simply wired differently, people on the autism spectrum have a really hard time figuring out how to make and keep friends and how to fit in, and do not understand why they are being excluded. They are expected “to be normal” – to take words from the title of a book. (By the way, Pretending to Be Normal: Living With Asperger’s Syndrome is a wonderful book. I highly recommend it for young adults (end of high school, college, and just out of college) as an “uplifting” story that things should get better in time)

But without specialized behavioral and communication skills instruction, people on the autism spectrum simply don’t know how to be “normal,” because autism is a neurological disability that prevents those affected from understanding the unwritten rules of social relationships, to use words from a title of another excellent book about autism. (The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism)



Thank you for listening. Any questions?


  1. Anna Rounseville says:

    the slides didn’t come through, but your discussion of the topic was good. I had to get a crash course in this as one of my children was diagnosed with PDD NOS about 4 months ago. I almost wish they had a cute nick name . How bout NOSsies, they’d sound like cool little race car drivers, which they kindof are. my kid has about five gears and one of those is sleep. So much info to work through. Thankfully our district is very kind and they have reallly been helpful there is even an autism library at our local boces. Good luck. Hope you Aced the presentation!

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