What is autism?
Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact socially. It is described as a spectrum disorder, which means that it manifests itself across a wide range of behaviors from mild to severe, requiring varying degrees of support.
Although some studies have demonstrated early predictors of autism in infants as young as 6 months of age, children are typically diagnosed by the age of three. The symptoms of autism involve two major areas of development: social communication/interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. Autism impacts a child’s abilities to:
- Engage in reciprocal social interactions with others
- Communicate with others in developmentally appropriate ways
- Transition or adapt flexibly to changes in routine
While most of us possess some mild form of these characteristics, it is the excessive and persistent presence of these characteristics that substantially affect quality of life and dictate the need for supports. One of the hallmarks of autism is that the characteristics vary significantly among different children with autism. No two children with autism are the same.
How has “autism” terminology evolved over time?
Until 2013, “autism spectrum disorder” referred to an umbrella of disorders, including Autistic Disorder (classic autism), Asperger Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorders – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Rett Syndrome, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Since then, these disorders have been folded into the broad term Autism Spectrum Disorder, which ranges in severity of deficits based on level of supports required.
Some individuals with autism who have greater adaptive skills self-identify as having “Asperger Syndrome” or being an “aspie”. These are typically individuals who were diagnosed with “Asperger Syndrome” under the old diagnostic criteria from pre-2013. Some people with Asperger Syndrome may resist being called a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), while others may embrace being called “autistic”.
Many members of the autism community, including self-advocates and well-regarded professionals, describe autism as a culture. As part of a growing neurodiversity movement, these individuals focus on initiatives that help society become more accepting of neurological diversity rather than focus on those that support efforts to “cure” them of their differences.