What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

A Google search of the phrase “what is autism spectrum disorder” will net you about 46,700,000 results in 0.62 seconds. Many of those results are full of complex medical jargon, paid advertisements, obsolete information, and misconstrued facts. It’s understandable that so many people both inside and outside the autism community do not have an accurate understanding of the definition of the diagnosis and the actual impacts of ASD on individuals.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

ASD is a complex neurological condition that impacts an individual’s social-emotional interactions and verbal and nonverbal communication. Individuals with ASD also exhibit restricted interests and behaviors. The severity of symptoms varies amongst each individual, but ASD does impact daily living.

What Are Early Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Symptoms of ASD typically emerge in children between the ages of 12-18 months. These symptoms can include but are not limited to:

  • A regression of a previously learned skill.
    • For example, a child may go from typically developing in language to regressing in language or losing words they had once been able to speak.
  • A delay in reaching developmental milestones.
    • For example, a child may not gain language as same-age peers or toilet independently within a expected time-frame.
  • Atypical behaviors
    • For example, a child may cry or cover their ears when a garage door is closed, they may line up toys rather than play with him, or flap hands or toe-walk.

What Do The Terms “High-Functioning Autism” and “Low-Functioning Autism” Mean?

Nothing. The term “high functioning” is often used to describe verbal individuals who have an alleged potential of living independently. The term “low functioning” is often used to describe nonverbal individuals with an alleged low probability of living independently. But those stereotypes are inaccurate.

Functioning means adaptive skills. Adaptive skills are those skills needed for daily living, such as the ability to verbally and nonverbally communicate, interact socially with peers, complete daily tasks such as shop for groceries, prepare a meal, drive or navigate public transportation, pay bills, etc. For example, a verbal, average intelligent autistic individual may have difficulty keeping a job because of sensory overload or co-worker relationships. A nonverbal autistic individual may be a gifted artist with a successful career.

The term “high functioning” ignores deficits and the term “low functioning” ignores strengths. Neither term accurately describes an individual’s autism because each person on the spectrum will have strengths and challenges that fluctuate throughout their lifespan.

What Is The Criteria For An Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis? (For those that want to get technical!)

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (DSM-5), the authoritative handbook created by the American Psychiatrist Association for use by health care clinicians in diagnosing and creating common language around mental disorders and their symptoms, a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder is characterized by persistent deficits in these two categories:

Social-interaction and social-communication deficits in at least two of the following:

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity: such as difficulty participating in back and forth conversations, difficulty initiating social interactions or responding to social interactions.
    • For example, a person exhibiting these behaviors might not be able to keep a conversation going or may ignore someone when asked a question.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communication: such as struggles to maintain eye contact, deficits in the inability to understand and read the body language, facial expressions and gestures of another person and in appropriately using body language, facial expressions, and gestures.
    • For example, a person may look away from someone when speaking with them or not understand someone’s emotional state by looking at them.
  • Deficits in maintaining relationships: such as a lack of interest in interacting with peers, difficulty playing imaginatively, cooperatively and adjusting behavior to various social settings.
    • For example, a person with ASD may prefer to engage in activities alone or enjoy being around others but not experience disappointment when not with peers.

Restricted patterns of interests, behaviors, and activities in at least two of the following:

  • Repetitive movements, use of objects or speech: such as, lining toys up rather than playing with them, repeating chunks of memorized words rather than using language creatively.
    • For example, a child may line up crayons, rather than color or they may repeat lines from a favorite movie, rather than answer a question they’ve been asked.
  • Ritualistic behavior and inflexibility to disruptions in routines: such as over-reacting to small changes in daily routines, insistence of eating same foods each day, using same utensils, etc.
    • For example, a person may become upset if a different route must be taken to school or a person may only eat foods that are a certain temperature or texture.
  • Intense fixated interests: such as intense fixation on objects or areas of interests.
    • For example, a person may only want to talk about dinosaurs, read about dinosaurs, watch television shows about dinosaurs, to the point that those around them see this as an abnormal fixation rather than just a normal interest.
  • Hyper (over) or Hypo (under) reaction to sensory input: such as either overreacts or under-reacts to things like pain, hunger, thirst, taste, temperature, textures, etc.
    • For example, a person may only eat foods a certain temperature, may crave heavy input such as a weighted blanket, or become overwhelmed at a restaurant because of the input of so many smells.

Social-Interaction and Social Communication and Restricted Patterns of Interests or Behaviors are then categorized by severity.

  • Level 1 – Requiring Support – Without supports in place, deficits cause noticeable impairments.
  • Level 2 – Requiring Substantial Support – Significant deficits in verbal/nonverbal communication and/or restrictive routines and behaviors.
  • Level 3 – Requiring Very Substantial Support – Severe deficits in verbal/nonverbal communication and/or restrictive routines and behaviors.

An individual may be a Level 1 in Social-Interaction and Social Communication and a Level 3 in Restricted Patterns of Interests or Behaviors.

What Does an Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis Mean Long-Term?

Currently, there is no cure for ASD, but ASD does not impact life expectancy. However, individuals with ASD do have a higher mortality rate due to a lack of awareness of danger, drowning being the leading cause of fatality. So teaching safety skills and putting measures in place to protect autistic individuals is essential.

Early intervention (diagnosing as early as possible and helping children with ASD improve verbal and nonverbal communication skills, social skills, and adaptive skills) significantly improves symptoms. Which, in turn, allows these individuals to live happy and fulfilling lives.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. – Stephen Shore

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.