What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Your Questions Answered

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Defining an Autism Spectrum Disorder

When a child is diagnosed as being autistic, parents normally ask, “What is autism spectrum disorder?” There are a number of conditions which fall on the spectrum, each with defining characteristics. Autism is sometimes referred to as a pervasive developmental disorder and includes Asperger’s syndrome, Rett’s syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder. Autistic people tend to live in their own world, seemingly oblivious to what is happening around them. They struggle to relate to other people and it is difficult to engage them in conversation. In some cases the person may be non-verbal, communicating through pictures and gestures instead of words.

Conditions Within Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by marked developmental problems in the following three areas: social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviors. As well as this, the person may have sensory problems in certain areas. Symptoms range from mild to severe and each case has a unique combination of factors. To answer the question, “What is autism spectrum disorder,” it helps to look at the different conditions on the spectrum:

  • Autistic disorder is often referred to as “autism.” These people are often completely withdrawn and cannot function in society. This is the type of autism that the general public is most familiar with. It is normally apparent by the age of three
  • Rett’s syndrome is a genetic condition marked by the slowing of head growth after five months of age. Hand skills are weak and the child tends to clasp their hands in front of themselves. Social withdrawal begins at a young age and severe problems with language and body movement develop
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder is a rare form of autism with an estimated occurrence of one in 100,000. A child develops normally for several years and then starts to regress with problems in language, social interaction, toileting and play skills
  • Asperger’s syndrome is at the high-functioning end of the spectrum and many people with this condition manage to function in society. Their condition is marked by formal, stilted speech patterns and obsessions with various subjects and interests. They also lack in social skills and are unable to interpret body language

High and Low Functioning Autism

Autism spectrum disorder in an umbrella term that encompasses many variations of autistic behavior. While a person will generally display the signs of social ineptness, communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors, they may be stronger in some areas than others. People with the same diagnosis may function at completely different levels which gives meaning to the use of the word spectrum. The overall ability of an individual to converse with others and communicate in a meaningful manner will affect whether they are classed as high or low functioning.

No matter where a person falls on the spectrum, there is help available. Once a definitive diagnosis has been made, groups of specialists will work on specific areas of weakness to help the child function as well as possible. Understanding what is autism spectrum disorder and the conditions within it are important for those with autistic family members.


National Institute for Mental Health https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/autism/what-are-the-autism-spectrum-disorders.shtml

Children with Autism - A Parents' Guide, Michael D powers, Woodbine House, 2000

The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Tony Attwood, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007