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Confused by Autism Terminology? Some Helpful Definitions

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Some of the terms associated with autism can be very confusing, but it's also very important that you are able to understand how they affect your child.

Below are some helpful definitions for some of these terms.

Working Memory and Processing Speed

Working Memory –

Working memory refers to the ability to temporarily store, understand and respond to information needed to speak, learn and reason. (1)

Processing Speed –

Processing speed is the speed at which a person can complete a task reasonably accurately, such as associating numbers with symbols. It can affect the ability to select the appropriate response to a situation. Processing speed also affects reading ability and language fluency even for people who recognize and can decode words accurately. (1)

Perseveration and Prosody

Perseveration / Perseverative Speech –

Perseveration refers to repeating or “getting stuck” when a person carries out a particular behavior when it is no longer appropriate. Perseverative speech is when a person repeats the same phrase or word or referring repeatedly to a single topic when it is no longer appropriate. (3)

Prosody –

One of the characteristics of ASD is flat, monotonous, or stiff rhythm when talking or reading. This often includes incorrect emphasis on syllables or important words. This rate, pitch, stress, inflection, and intonation of speech is referred to as prosody. (3)

Receptive Language and Occupational Therapy

Receptive Language –

The ability to understand or comprehend words and sentences is called receptive language. For example, by 12 months a child usually begins to understand words, can respond to his or her name, and respond to familiar words.

By 18 to 20 months a child can give familiar objects when named, can identify familiar people when he/she hears the name (e.g., “mommy” or “daddy”) and can point to a few body parts. A child with an ASD diagnosis may not meet these comprehension milestones. (3)

Occupational Therapy –

“Occupational” or “occupation” in this case does not refer to a job. Occupational or occupation refers to the everyday activities that people do as individuals, in families, and in their community. These activities normally occupy time and bring meaning and purpose to life. But those with ASD and other learning disabilities can struggle with these basic activities.

Occupational therapists enable people to engage and participate in these activities by either teaching them how to cope and adjust or by helping the environments (schools, workplaces) adjust to accommodate the needs of those with ASD or other difficulties. (4)


1. Working Memory Influences Processing Speed and Reading Fluency in ADHD. Jacobson, Lisa A. et. al. Child Neuropsychol. 2011; 17(3): 209-224. Web. Accessed: Feb 10, 2013.

2. The Effects of ADHD (Beyond Decoding Accuracy) on Reading Fluency and Comprehension. Mahone E. Mark. Johns Hopkins School of Education. Web. Accessed:

3. Glossary of Terms. Autism Speaks. Web. Accessed: Feb 10, 2013.

4. Definition of occupational therapy? World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Web. Accessed: Feb 10, 2013.

Reviewed February 11, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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