What is Autism?

//What is Autism?
What is Autism? 2017-10-20T21:43:16+00:00

What is Autism?

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are a range of complex neurodevelopmental disorders often characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. These disorders are characterized in varying degrees.

Autism typically appears noticeable during the first three years of a person’s life, however because of the complexity of the condition, it may not be diagnosed until later in life.

Types of Autism

The full range of ASDs includes:

  • Autistic Disorder (also called “classic” autism): This is what many people think of when hearing the word “autism.” People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have delays in cognitive development.
  • Asperger syndrome: Individuals with Asperger syndrome (AS) or simply Asperger’s usually have some milder symptoms of autistic disorder. It is an ASD characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. Characteristics often include restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior or special interests.  It differs from other autism spectrum disorders in that individuals do not have early delays with verbal language or cognitive development. Often challenges with fine and gross motor skills (physical clumsiness) and atypical use of language are reported.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS): This is sometimes referred to as “atypical autism”. Individuals who meet some—but not all—of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome may be diagnosed with PDD-NOS. They will usually have fewer and milder symptoms than those with autistic disorders, with symptoms possibly including social and communication challenges.
  • Rett syndrome: This is a postnatal neurodevelopmental disorder that affects girls almost exclusively. It is characterized by normal early growth and development followed by a slowing of development, loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability.
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder: Childhood disintegrative (or disintegration) disorder, also known as Heller syndrome, is characterized by a loss of previously acquired language and social skills and results in a persistent delay in these areas. Children with this pervasive developmental disorder appear to develop normally for the first two years of life, but then lose skills in areas such as language, play, and bowel control and manifest impaired social interaction and communication associated with restrictive, repetitive, stereotyped behaviors. 

The kinds of ASD referred to above are those referenced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version IV (DSM-IV). This manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. This is the manual referred to by clinicians and diagnosticians when diagnosing autism. The DSM IV was published in 1994 and it was the first time that Asperger Syndrome was included.

In May 2013, an updated version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual was published, the DSM-5. In the DSM-5, autism subtypes are merged into one umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Rett syndrome was removed

References: DSM5.org

Is it now called Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder?

When you see or hear “autism”, “autism spectrum disorder”, “ASD” and “autistic spectrum disorder” in educational materials, unless otherwise specified, the words or phrases are often used interchangeably to include all facets of the spectrum, including Asperger syndrome.

When someone mentions Asperger Syndrome, “AS”, Asperger’s or Asperger, they are also referring to an ASD but are generally being more specific and referring to the traits of Asperger syndrome included in the DSM-IV from 1994 through 2013. Clinicians which use the DSM V will no longer see Asperger syndrome as a separate diagnosis, however depending on the evaluation and the traits which are present, a patient who would have been diagnosed previously with Asperger syndrome will still likely receive an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis.

As of August 2014, there are still states within the USA that recognize and use the DSM IV when it comes to diagnosis and determining eligibility for support services. Some clinicians have chosen to boycott the DSM V and use the DSM IV instead. It will vary from region to region, professional to professional.

No matter what it’s called or diagnosed, individuals with Asperger syndrome still have Asperger’s. There is a large Asperger / Aspie support community online as well as a number of organizations providing support to individuals who identify with the Asperger’s phenotype.

When Autism Empowerment refers to autism or ASD throughout this website, we are referring to the autism spectrum as a whole, unless otherwise specified. This includes Asperger Syndrome.

Autism is considered a lifelong developmental disability which impacts the way a person communicates and how he or she experiences the world around them. It is described as a spectrum condition. This means that while individuals on the autism spectrum may share certain characteristics, no two individuals on the autism spectrum are on the same.

A famous saying in the autism community often attributed to Dr. Stephen Shore is if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives while others are more severely impacted and require a higher level of care. Individuals with autism often face additional challenges including learning differences and medical co-conditions which affect them so significantly that that need lifelong support in many area.

Acceptance, education and support are crucial in empowering children, teenagers and adults with autism to lead the highest quality of life possible.


Health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not represent endorsement by or an official position of Autism Empowerment. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history.