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Over the past 70 years, the medical community’s understanding of autism has evolved in both definition and implication. The public’s understanding of autism has changed as well, and though misconceptions persist, it’s now widely known that autism disorders exist along a wide spectrum of ability.

Autism was most recently redefined in 2013, when the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) folded all subcategories of autism into one umbrella diagnosis called Autism Spectrum Disorder.

It’s defined by two categories:

  • impaired social communication and/or interaction
  • restricted or repetitive behaviors

The autism spectrum can be a difficult one to interpret given its breadth and complexity. Rather than being limited to set characteristics and behavior, disorders along the spectrum can vary infinitely in combination and presentation, like colors on a prism. Though individuals share core symptoms, those with ASD range from severely challenged to extremely gifted and everywhere in between.

The spectrum: a history

Though autism by name is over a century old, the spectrum it encompasses is a very modern understanding of the diagnosis.

The word autism was first used in 1908 to describe a certain subset of patients deemed schizophrenic, who were characterized by withdrawn and self-absorbed behavior. Then, in 1943 American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner published research describing highly intelligent children that displayed “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness.”

Kanner would call these traits early infantile autism; just a year later in 1944, Hans Asperger described the milder form of autism now known as Asperger’s Syndrome.

In the 60s, misinformation prevailed when the “refrigerator mother” theory emerged, spreading claims that autism was caused by unloving parents. In 1977, scientists determined the cause to be a largely genetic one, and it wasn’t until 1980 that “infantile autism” was listed in the DSM.

In 1987, the DSM replaced “infantile autism” with “autism disorder,” a more expansive definition closer resembling Autism Spectrum Disorder in function. Improved diagnosis capability and new types of behavioral therapy gave hope to parents, as did the emergence of special education in schools for children on the spectrum.

After more progress (expansion of diagnosis) and missteps (a now-discredited 1998 study blaming vaccines for autism), 2013 brought about the current ASD definition and the spectrum as we know it today.

ASD: What it encompasses

Everyone along the autism spectrum embodies, to some level, core traits associated with autism. These include difficulty with social skills, empathy, flexible behavior and communication.

Along the spectrum exist disorders that have more specific definitions. These are:

  • Classic Autism: Also simply called “Autistic Disorder,” individuals with classic autism closely characterize traits associated with the disease such as language delays, trouble with communication, and unusual behaviors and interests.
  • Asperger’s Syndrome: Individuals with Asperger’s display milder side effects of autism. They may have some social challenges as well as unusual behaviors and interests, but lack any impairment in language or intellectual development.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified): Also called “atypical autism,” individuals with PDD-NOS may meet some but not all of the traits associated with autism and Asperger’s. They typically display fewer or milder symptoms, causing challenges in one area rather than several.

Individuals on the spectrum also range from low to high functioning. Those with Asperger’s or PDD are more likely to be high-functioning, and may even display extreme intellect or above average IQs. Low-functioning individuals may have severe to moderate learning disabilities that may or may not be overcome with therapy.

Not under the spectrum but related to it are two rare but severe conditions: Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.

Is your loved one on the spectrum?

If your child or family member exhibits difficulty with social interaction or communication, or displays abnormal behaviors and interests, there is a chance they are on the autism spectrum. Early signs include a lack of language skills or unusually obsessive behaviors.

Children exhibiting these characteristics should be examined by a professional team with experience diagnosing autism. It may not be immediately apparent where on the spectrum they fall (if at all), but the sooner the diagnosis the closer you will be to providing the best possible emotional and physical support.

Featured image: Charlene Croft via Flickr