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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.


Graphic by @autism_happy_place from Instagram. Two individuals explaining how the Autism spectrum isn't a dichotomy of very autistic or not very autistic but rather that every autistic person has different strengths and difficulties.
Two individuals explaining how the Autism spectrum isn't a dichotomy of very autistic or not very autistic but rather that every autistic person has different strengths and difficulties.


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:

  1. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across contexts, such as:

  2. Deficits in social emotional reciprocity

  3. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviours used for social interaction

  4. Deficits in developing and maintaining relationships

  5. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities, such as:

  6. Stereotypes repetitive speech, motor movements, or use of objects

  7. Excessive adherence to routines, ritualized behaviour patterns, or extreme dislike for change

  8. Highly restricted, fixated interests

  9. Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input

  10. Symptoms are present in early childhood

  11. 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

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