Donna Canfield
Special Education
Material Type:
Module, Reading, Textbook
Adult Education
  • Autism
  • Autism (ASD)
  • Autism Diagnostic Inventory
  • Diversity
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Inclusive
  • Special Education
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives
    Media Formats:
    Audio, Text/HTML, Video

    Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Inclusivity

    Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Inclusivity


    An introductory module to autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and a discussion of inclusivity and diversity. Multiple videos, books and articles are included.

    Course Overview and Learning Objectives

    Welcome to Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders!

    This course is an introductory module to cover the basics and foundations of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

    It is suited for high school students, post-secondary students, and any individual who is interested in learning more about ASD (including parents, family members, support workers and individuals who work with children).

    Included in this module is a full PDF textbook available to download and use at any time, along with more books, articles and videos to access anytime, anywhere.

    This introductory module would fit into a diploma or certificate program in disabilities or specialization in ASD. This module provides students with some basic information, but more resources and content would need to be added for an entire program.

    This module should take learners between 1 and 2 hours.

    Learning Objectives:

    By the end of this module, learners will:

    1. Understand the definition of ASD and common traits/characterists of people with the disorder.

    2. Know and recognize the importance of inclusion and diversity, and how we can facilitate inclusion.

    3. Define interventions and therapy approaches to the treatment of ASD.

    4. Understand the role of the brain, genetics and the environment in ASD diagnoses.

    5. Have the appropriate knowledge to understand ASD and move forward to a post-secondary program in ASD or disabilities.

    Definition of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

    Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disability that manifests itself in marked differences in social relatedness, communication, interest, and behavior. It begins in utero and is predominantly genetic. Autism can be reliably diagnosed as early as age 2, but sometimes may not be noticed until later childhood, teen, or even adult years.

    Autism is characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. Parents often notice signs during the first three years of their child's life. These signs often develop gradually, though some autistic children experience regression in their communication and social skills after reaching developmental milestones at a normal pace.

    Autism is associated with a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Risk factors during pregnancy include certain infections, such as rubella, toxins including valproic acid, alcohol, cocaine, pesticides, lead, and air pollution, fetal growth restriction, and autoimmune diseases. Controversies surround other proposed environmental causes; for example, the vaccine hypothesis, which has been disproven. Autism affects information processing in the brain and how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood. This will be briefly discussed later in the course.

    Please view the following PowerPoint that is available for download through the link below:

    This will explain some of the diagnostic criteria, history, causes, risks, myths and current statistics. Save it in your documents to view at any time.

    Signs, Symptoms and Characteristics of Individuals with ASD

    The most common signs of autism are outlined in the image above.

    Keep in mind that not all individuals will exhibit the same symptoms. Some individuals will have severe, more prominent symptoms, and some may have signs that are barely noticeably (or not noticeable at all).

    The most common symptoms are:

    1. Avoiding eye contact. Many individuals, especially children with ASD, will rarely make eye contact with others, and eye contact may be brief. Children with ASD often feel nervous or intimidated by eye contact.

    2. Lining up objects. People with ASD often have a specific order or theme that objects or toys need to be in. For example, a child may line up blocks according to color, size, shape, etc. They may also line up baskets or storage containers in the order they believe they should go. This is often a calming, soothing behavior that makes the person feel in charge of their environment.

    3. Need for routine. Many people with ASD prefer to have an established, daily routine that doesn't change very much. They may become disoriented or out of sorts if their routine changes.

    4. Hyper or passive. The individual may be hyper, have high energy, use their voice a lot, etc., or they may be passive, very quiet, show few emotions and appear to be in a "day dream".

    5. Over or under sensitive. The individual may cry a lot and express emotions very strongly, or they may show very few emotions and appear to be less sensitive than others.

    6. Loves favorite objects. The individual may have a preferred handful of toys or objects that they are drawn to, and they like to hold or play with the objects a lot. It may be a completely random object such as a toy car.

    7. Needs more rest. Many individuals with ASD sleep for 10+ hours a night. Their brains function differently than neurotypical people, and they often need more rest.

    8. Repetitive movements. The individual may stimulate themselves by flapping their arms (stimming), touching objects with different textures, using their feet to explore new objects and environments.

    If you work with (or have) a child/person with ASD, which of these signs do you notice? What signs do they have that are different?

    There is such a broad spectrum of autism diagnoses, and each person is going to be different. It is interesting to see how some signs are more common, and some are completely unique to each person.

    Please view the following video on YouTube to introduce ASD and how individuals differ from those who are neurotypical: 

    Prevalence of ASD Diagnoses and How to Help

    Please view the following video on Vimeo:

    Let's review:

    Every 24 hours, nearly 100 children are born in the USA that will one day be diagnosed with ASD.

    Autism diagnoses are increasing steadily, and reasons for this are unclear. It may be because more people have autism than in the past, but it also may be from the advances in technology and the knowledge we have to be able to diagnose people. Many years ago, there weren't many resources for support and medical attention, so people who may have shown signs of autism were not diagnosed. We also have an increasing population all over the world.

    Globally, autism is estimated to affect 24.8 million people as of 2015. In the 2000s, the number of autistic people worldwide was estimated at 1–2 per 1,000 people. In the developed countries, about 1.5% of children are diagnosed with ASD as of 2017, from 0.7% in 2000 in the United States. It is diagnosed four-to-five times more often in males than females. The number of people diagnosed has increased considerably since the 1990s, which may be partly due to increased recognition of the condition

    There are many different reasons for the increase of ASD diagnoses. Keep in mind that there isn't one correct answer, but several hypotheses and reasons that may contribute to it.

    We can help by donating to autism research, volunteering for fundraising events and supporting legislation to aid families.

    Optional activity for insight: Visit the autism society page for whichever province or state you are in and learn what you can do to help support individuals in your community with ASD.

    The Brain, Role of Genetics and the Environment

    Please read the following article and explore the resources at the bottom, if you wish:


    The role of the "social brain" in ASD:

    Basic social perception is a critical building block for more sophisticated social behaviors, such as thinking about the motives and emotions of others. The notion of a social brain is a set of interconnected neuroanatomical structures that process social information, enabling the recognition of other individuals and the evaluation their mental states (e.g., intentions, dispositions, desires, and beliefs).

    The brain imaging research described in the article offers hope for the future of ASD treatment. Many of the functions of the social brain demonstrate significant plasticity, meaning that their functioning can be affected by experience over time. In contrast to theories that suggest difficulty processing complex information or communicating across large expanses of cortex, this malleability of the social brain is a positive prognosticator for the development of treatment. The brains of people with ASD are not wired to process optimally social information. But this does not mean that these systems are irretrievably broken. Given the observed plasticity of the social brain, remediation of these difficulties may be possible with appropriate and timely intervention.

    The content in the article is difficult to understand, especially in the level of depth given. If you are curious, view some of the references at the bottom of the article. The most important concept to take away from the article is the idea of the social brain, brain imaging for future treatments and the main differences between an ASD brain and a neurotypical brain.

    For the next portion of this lesson, download and view the full book (accessible in the link):

    This is a very long, informative textbook that explores the role of genetics in diagnosis and treatment for ASD. You may choose to read the entire book in your spare time, but it is suggested that you read Part 1 Chapter 1: Early Detection of Autism Spectrum Disorders and Part 3 Chapter 4: The Genetics of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

    These chapters will explain the role of genetics in ASD, and how this relates to diagnoses and treatment.

    Alternative Approaches to Therapy and Intervention for Individuals with ASD

    View the video from YouTube in the link below:

    In the 10 minute video, Dr. Christina Devereaux discusses the benefits of dance/movement therapy for people with autism.

    Many individuals (especially children) with an ASD diagnosis enjoy music, dancing and art. This can help in the areas of social relatedness, relationships, self expression, learning to express emotions and channel energy in different ways.

    In the full textbook from the previous section, there are several different complex approaches to treatment and therapy, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that are discussed, but we can also use approaches such as dance/movement therapy in our every day lives. If you are interested in more content about treatment approaches, ABA or other therapy techniques, read the textbook from the previous section and conduct your own research to find more scientific, scholarly data.

    If you work with, or have a child with ASD, think of how dance/movement therapy could be beneficial in their lives.

    Inclusivity and Diversity

    To introduce the concepts of inclusivity and diversity, follow the link to the YouTube video below:

    This is a brief, 5 minute video that is also suitable for younger audiences that discusses the fact that all humans are different, we are all diverse and unique in our own ways, and it is important to include others regardless of their differences. You can use this video in your own teaching if you work with kids, or you could show it to your own children to introduce them to the idea of inclusivity, and encourage them to be accepting and inviting toward their peers.

    Once you have watched the short video, follow the link to the online book called Opening Eyes onto Inclusion and Diversity:

    This book is for any reader who wishes to learn more about the rich tapestry of learners and individuals who make our world such an interesting and diversely textured community. Although the focus is largely on diversity and inclusion in Australian educational contexts, the perspectives and insights presented within each chapter have much to offer to the broader community as a whole.

    When you are reading the book: focus on the six principles underpinning the creation of an inclusive culture:

    Principle 1 Informed shared social justice leadership at multiple levels – learning from and with others. 

    Principle 2 Moral commitment to a vision of inclusion – explicit expectations regarding inclusion embedded in school wide practice.

    Principle 3 Collective commitment to whatever it takes – ensuring that the vision of inclusion is not compromised. 

    Principle 4 Getting it right from the start – wrapping students, families and staff with the support needed to succeed. 

    Principle 5 Professional targeted student-centred learning – professional learning for teachers and support staff informed by data identified need. 

    Principle 6 Open information and respectful communication – leaders, staff, students, community effectively working together.

    You do not have to read the whole book. You may choose to read the chapters that relate to your life/your work. It is recommended that you read the first 4 chapters, those are the most relevant to this course and our everyday lives.

    Think of ways you can promote inclusivity at your workplace, at schools, in your childrens' lives, etc. What makes it inclusive already? What can be done differently to make individuals feel more accepted and equal in their lives?

    It is important to remember the role of inclusivity and diversity in society. Regardless of if the individual has any disabilties, what color they are, what their sexual orientation is, etc., they should be treated as equals and they should feel welcome wherever they go.

    I hope this chapter has provided you with some insight and ideas on how to promote inclusivity and why it is so important.


    In this short course, we have discussed the definition of ASD, the signs and syptoms of individuals with ASD, the prevalence of dianoses, the role of the brain, genetics and the environment, alternative approaches to therapy and interventions, and the role of inclusivity and diversity in society.

    Feel free to save any resources in your documents to view at any time. I hope you have learned something important from this course and you can apply the information to your everyday life. View the following section for references and attributions.

    Attributions and References

    Title image: "Autism" by hepingting is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0  

    Section 2:

    "Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorder" by Kristen DuMoulin is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

    Wikimedia Commons (2021) Autism.

    Wikipedia (2021) Autism.

    Section 3:

    "Plain-language poster describing signs of autism" by MissLunaRose12 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

    "Autism Spectrum: Atypical Minds in a Stereotypical World" by Sprouts is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0  

    Section 4:

    "Autism in 24 Hours" by John Horstman is licensed under CC BY 3.0

    Wikipedia (2021) Autism.

    Section 5:

    "Autism: Insights from the Study of the Social Brain" by Kevin Pelphrey is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Pelphrey, K. A. (2021). Autism: insights from the study of the social brain. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from

    "Autism Spectrum Disorders : The Role of Genetics in Diagnosis and Treatment" by Stephen Deutsch is licensed under CC BY 3.0

    Deutsch, S., & Urbano, M. R. (2011). Autism spectrum disorders: The role of genetics in diagnosis and treatment. InTech.

    Section 6:

    "CA Dance/Movement Therapy & Autism: Dances of Relationship" by American Dance Therapy Association is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    Section 7:

    "Amazing Things Happen!" by Amazing Things Project is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    "Opening Eyes onto Inclusion and Diversity" by Susan Carter is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

    Carter, Susan , ed. (2019) Opening eyes onto inclusion and diversity. University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia.