Autism is a Spectrum
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurological variation characterized by non-standard ways of approaching problem solving, deeply focused thinking and passionate interest in specific subjects, and atypical, sometimes repetitive, movement.
Individuals with autism may also have different sensory experiences, or ways of using and reacting to their senses. For example, a sensation that may be uncomfortable to a neurotypical person may be panic-inducing or overstimulating for someone with autism.
Because autism is a spectral disorder, it presents itself differently from individual to individual. Moreover, every person with autism has different sets of strengths and challenges. Some people with autism may not require as much support in their day-to-day lives, whereas others may struggle with communicating feelings of anxiety or disturbance and need assistance to do so.
People with autism may also have a low social battery and find socializing draining and overstimulating. After an interaction, they may need some alone time to “recharge.”
Terminology of Autism
In the past, there were four separate diagnoses for the category of autism; autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder.
While these diagnoses did recognize that autism was in-fact a spectrum - as in different people had different symptoms - there was no clear-cut criteria for determining what category an individual went into.
“The previous labels were applied very unevenly,” says Jeremy Veenstra-Vanderveele, MD, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University. “Depending where someone went for an evaluation, they might walk out with a different diagnosis, even though the recommendations for treatment might be the same.”
The definitions for these old diagnoses further help us see why the distinctions between the subtypes of autism were too broad and unclear to allow for streamlined categorization.
Autism disorder: This was the broadest type of autism. Symptoms ranged from challenges with language and learning, repetitive behaviors, and problems faced with verbal and non-verbal communication. According to Veenstra-Vanderveele, these individuals might have very particular interests and may excel in certain things.
Asperger’s Syndrome: Individuals with Asperger’s have difficulty with socializing, display some repetitive behaviors, and may have some issues with motor development, but otherwise do not have any delays with cognitive or language development. People with Asperger’s may also have trouble understanding nonliteral phrases and may have some difficulty making eye contact during a conversation.
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD): CDD, or “Heller’s Syndrome”, did not present any symptoms until the later stages of childhood. At age 3 or older, children would begin to present problems with motor skills, socialization, or language. CDD was a rare diagnosis, apparently occurring in 1-2 kids for every 100,000.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS): A “threshold” type of autism, individuals diagnosed with PDD-NOS might have shown some symptoms of autism, but not all of them. Many individuals diagnosed with PDD-NOS actually did not fit into this category very well, as they all had a different severity of problems with language, motor, and social development
Now, all types of autism have been merged into one diagnosis - autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The Big Picture
The study of autism isn’t an exact science, and that’s okay. Autistic people are in every community and come from all types of backgrounds, and it is important to understand that experiences with autism can vary and change over the course of one’s life. There is no “one way” to be autistic.
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