What does it mean to be a spectrum disorder?
A common misunderstanding of ASD is what it means when a person says autism is a spectrum disorder. Many people will picture a linear spectrum stretching between two points, often from high-functioning to low-functioning or denoting severity. But regarding autism, the spectrum is best represented as a circle of traits, with different qualities being more or less present in different people.
This means that autistic people are often very different from one another, making it difficult for some to accurately picture what autism looks like without relying on stereotypes. You may have heard the phrase “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” which highlights the complexity of an ASD diagnosis. Simply knowing that a person is autistic is not enough to know their experience or needs.
The current diagnostic tool for ASD and many other mental disorders in North America is the DSM-5 (the DSM-5-TR is the most current edition of this manual). The diagnostic criteria for ASD in the DSM-5 can be found here and here, but is briefly listed below:
Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across contexts, such as:
Deficits in social emotional reciprocity
Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviours used for social interaction
Deficits in developing and maintaining relationships
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities, such as:
Stereotypes repetitive speech, motor movements, or use of objects
Excessive adherence to routines, ritualized behaviour patterns, or extreme dislike for change
Highly restricted, fixated interests
Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input
Symptoms are present in early childhood
Symptoms limit and impair everyday functioning
If a person meets these criteria and is diagnosed with ASD, they are autistic. No other person with autism can be more or less autistic than them. Meaning that whether you have autism or not is a dichotomy, but the symptoms of autism you have and the degree to which they impair your daily life is a spectrum.
Written by: Breanne Esau
Speech-Language Pathology Assistant