The Meaning of Spectrum in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Go to any reputable website such as WebMd or the National Institute of Health, and the term “Autism” will be followed by the word “spectrum” This usage of the term is not limited to these websites. Nearly every site dedicated to the condition has done the same. Also, special educators, researchers, doctors, and specialists dealing the condition prefer the inclusion of this word.

This is no accident. According to the Encarta English Dictionary, the word spectrum means “a range of values or conditions, especially one with opposite values at its limits.” When looking at the effects of the various forms of autism on a person, there appears to be a set of variations between the milder, high-functioning forms and the most severe and debilitating ones.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to several conditions with the same core symptoms. According to WebMd, children with ASD have deficits in:

1. Social interaction,

2. Verbal and nonverbal communication, and

3. Repetitive behaviors or interests.

4. Unusual responses to sensory experiences

Also, The American Academy of Pediatrics defines ASD as a complex neurobehavioral disorder which includes impairments in social interaction, developmental language and communication deficits, and rigid, repetitive behaviors (WebMD, 2011).  The organization also states that the symptoms will range in severity in which the individual with the condition may be able to live a normal life with little limitation, or will have disabilities that may require institutional care for the rest of his or her life.

There are five types of autism within the spectrum:

Asperger’s Syndrome: Those with this condition may have average to above average range of intelligence. Also, they will not have a problem with language. However, social problems, repetitions of certain habits, and a limited scope of interests (wearing the same clothing, for example) are prevalent. Most of these children will have normal lives. Some will even go on to universities and earn post-graduate degrees. By far, this condition is the mildest.

Autistic disorder: Often cited as the classic case of autism, it mainly shows up in children younger than three. Children with this condition will have problems with social interaction, communication (slurred speech or difficulty sounding out a letter), and imaginative play. Those with this condition can live normal lives with some limitations.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD): Often, this is a designation given to children who have some traits of autism but do not fit in the other categories. It is also known as atypical autism.

Rett Syndrome: This rare and severe condition is prevalent in girls. Often, a girl with this condition will develop normally, and then begin to deteriorate. Their communication and social skills are the most affected. They begin developing repetitive hand movements and may lose the ability to speak. Boys afflicted don’t live long. Often the deterioration begins between the ages 1 and 4 years of age.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder: This is another severe and deteriorative condition. For the first two years, the children with it will develop normally. Then, as is the case Rett Syndrome, they begin to lose some or most of their communication and social skills.

The spectrum doesn’t stop there. Within each condition, there are levels of severity.  Those with Rett Syndrome or Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, for example, may be able to communicate on a very small scale. Others, on the other hand, may have trouble forming a word, verbally. And, in the most extreme cases, there are others who will have little or no ability to take care of themselves.

The term “autism” is still used without “spectrum” or “disorder”. It has entered the lexicon of the American public as merely one word; however, by tacking on spectrum, one may understand that this condition doesn’t affect every child in the same fashion.