The Triad Of Impairments And Other Autism Myths

Autism / Cognitive Positive Psychology / Positive Psychology / Strengths

The above diagram related to a model called the Triad of Impairments. This should not be confused with the three categorised types of Autism:

There are three different types of Autism Spectrum Disorders:
  • Autistic Disorder (also called “classic” autism) This is what most people think of when hearing the word “autism.” …
  • Asperger Syndrome. …
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS; also called “atypical autism”)

Triad of Impairments

The ‘Triad of Impairments’ model is used to describe the main features all people with autism have difficulty with to some degree.

Social interaction:

  • Behaves as if others do not exist, treating people as objects
  • Can be unresponsive to peoples voices/attempts at communication
  • Finds making friends/building relationships difficult
  • Struggles to manage unstructured parts of the day

Communication and Language:

  • Difficulty with both the processing and understanding of verbal information
  • Difficulty understanding jokes/sarcasm/literal interpretation, social language, body language and paralinguistic features (intonation, stress, tone of voice)

Imagination/Rigidity of thinking:

  • Likes things to be routine and structured
  • Obsessively follows rituals
  • Can have impaired imaginative play (especially with others)
  • Lack of empathy for others
  • Has a poor awareness of danger (thinking forward/what can happen)

All people with autism will show difficulties in these areas but to varying degrees.  Alongside this triad some people with autism can have many different features accompanying their autism, for example;

  • Learning disability
  • Mental health problems. 
  • Sensory sensitivity: either hyper-sensitive (e.g. dislike of loud noises or touch) or hyposensitive (will seek out sensation e.g. putting things in their mouths or enjoys vibrations)

The severity of the condition will determine how it affects someone’s life.  Some people with severe/low functioning autism with associated learning disability will be completely dependent on other people in all areas of their life and may be unable to communicate with people around them.  However, others with less severe/high functioning autism are likely to be able to integrate into society and be quite independent.

A commonly known from of high functioning autism is Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).  People with AS often have average or above-average intelligence and will have fewer problems with their speech.  However, they will still find it difficult to understand and process language and will need support in learning how to manage social situations.

Special School

So after reading the above you could be forgiven for feeling sorry for the poor afflicted people with the disorder and the impairments. Certainly when i was at school the last place you would want to be is within a special school environment, and frankly – I wonder how much things have really changed. Personally I think that Autism and inclusion should sit within diversity and not simply disability. I believe that labels such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Triad of Impairments form part of the issue. We need to consider the concept of appreciative inquiry and Strength-based approaches – and that’s coming from someone who loves triangles (like really loves them). And for the record I would have LOVED the X-men school!

Issues with the current way of thinking

The issue with the triad of impairments as a concept is that these impairments may actually be symptoms as opposed to impairments in themselves. There is an argument to suggest that these symptoms are brought on from being in a state of sensory overload and the resulting fear / anxiety.

A strength-based approach: The Triad of Strengths

Rather than starting with a triad of impairments, which frankly is a negative label – let’s start with a triad of strengths…

Routine bias – The need for regularity and routine means that implementing one removes considerable anxiety

Precision – There is a need for precision and the removal of superfluity

Authenticity – There is an in-built need to speak the truth and hear the truth and to follow ones own compass

In fact let’s make it a Quadrangle of Quirks

Social Space – There is a need for the management of distance and space and the careful rationing of social activity

Just thought of another… Now it’s a Pentagram of Power

Sensory Control – Management of the super-senses is required



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