2.2 The autism spectrum
Because of the striking differences among individuals with autism, researchers and practitioners usually talk of the ‘
A proportion of people on the spectrum (up to about 50%) have profound social and communication difficulties often including little or no speech, markedly restricted and repetitive behaviour and interests, and intellectual disabilities. This variant of autism has sometimes been known as classic or
Another major group are those who have no obvious language problems and are intellectually capable or even exceptionally bright, while remaining inflexible, bound by routines, struggling to interact socially and communicate effectively. This variant has until recently been diagnosed as
Autism spectrum conditions can occur alongside other psychological and physical conditions (sometimes known as
Activity 4 Why is autism a spectrum?
Now that you have been introduced to some key facts about autism, write a few notes commenting on why it is considered to be a spectrum. For instance, how much does autism vary between people?
How do your notes compare with our feedback below? Have you included some of the same ideas?
Although people meeting the diagnostic criteria for autism share characteristic difficulties in social interaction, and the tendency to repetitive or restricted behaviours and interests, these are expressed in different ways and to different extents. One person may speak very little, while another speaks a lot, perhaps not taking the interests of listeners into account; one person may be particularly sensitive to loud sounds, while another has heavy metal music as a special interest. This variety in behaviour, and the genetic and biological variability which underlies it, has meant that the concept of autism has evolved from the original idea of a specific syndrome, to that of a spectrum.
Note that the concept of a spectrum derives from the physics of white light which is made up of an array of colours ordered from low frequencies (red) to higher frequencies (violet) as can be seen in a rainbow. But borrowing this concept has led to the misleading idea that autism is a linear scale with profoundly affected individuals at the 'low' end and less affected individuals at the 'high' end. In practice, a person with good intellectual and language skills, often known as