(Used with the permission of Autism Society Canada, 2014)
Terms and Labels
Terms used to refer to various Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) can be very confusing at first: one will hear terms such as: autism, classic autism, high functioning autism, Autistic Disorder, Asperger Syndrome or Asperger's Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
It is important to distinguish between the clinical terms and descriptions of ASD and our understanding and knowledge of people who live with ASD. We need to understand clinical terms used in medical settings, during diagnosis, and in certain treatment or intervention settings. However, it is wise to keep in mind that these terms may also be seen as limiting labels to some people on the spectrum who feel that ASDs have been "medicalized" to the point where individuals who are unique in their skills, abilities and value to their communities, have been forgotten or eclipsed by the "disorder".
The term "autism" is often used in two different ways. It is used to refer specifically to Autistic Disorder and it is also used more generally to refer to all ASDs. The term "spectrum" refers to a continuum of severity or developmental impairment. Children and adults with ASDs usually have particular communication and social characteristics in common, but the conditions cover a wide spectrum, with individual differences in:
When speaking of ASDs, most people are referring to three of the PDDs that are most common:
Generally speaking, individuals with ASDs have varying degrees of difficulty in social interaction and communication and may show repetitive behaviours and have unusual attachments to objects or routines.
Autism is the most common neurological disorder affecting children and one of the most common developmental disabilities affecting Canadians in general. ASDs change the way the brain processes information and can affect all aspects of a person's development. Classic autism usually appears during the first three years of life. Autism is four times more common in boys than girls. Each individual is unique - no one person with an ASD responds or behaves exactly like another with the same diagnosis.
Several other medical conditions also include some features of PDD, such as Down Syndrome, Prader-Willi Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, William's Syndrome or Tourette's Syndrome but PDD does not actually include these medical conditions.
General Characteristics of Autism
Children and Adults with ASDs have Challenges with:
They usually find it hard to communicate with others in a typical way and have difficulty understanding social conventions. As a result, individuals with autism may respond in unusual ways to everyday situations and changing environments.
Autism varies tremendously in severity. Individuals with severe autism conditions may have serious cognitive disability, sensory problems and symptoms of extremely repetitive and unusual behaviours. This can include tantrums, self-injury, defensiveness and aggression caused by an inability to communicate. Without appropriate intensive intervention, these symptoms may be very persistent and difficult to change. Living or working with a person with severe autism can be very challenging, requiring tremendous patience and understanding of the condition. In its mildest form, however, autism is more like a personality difference caused by difficulties in understanding social conventions.
Children with ASDs develop differently and at different rates from other children their age in the areas of motor, language, cognitive and social skills growth. They might be very good at advanced or complex skills such as solving math problems but find the "easy" things, like talking or making friends' very difficult. Some children with ASDs develop large vocabularies and can read long words but may be unable to vocalize the sound of a single letter. A child may also learn new skills, such as saying a number of words, but lose this ability later on.
A Wide Spectrum of Disabilities and Different Abilities
A Note on Individuality
Autism conditions show themselves in many ways - there are characteristics common to autism but a person with autism will not have all of these characteristics and they will vary greatly in severity person to person. Verbal and Non-verbal Communication:
Repeated and Unusual Behaviours, Interests and Routines:
Responses to Sensations:
Many individuals with autism have other health problems:
Effects on Learning - Many of the characteristics and aspects of ASD listed above can interfere with the ability to learn through typical teaching methods:
"Able autistic individuals can rise to eminent positions and perform with such outstanding success that one may even conclude that only such people are capable of certain achievements" wrote Dr. Hans Asperger in 1944.
Unique Abilities - Individuals with ASDs have their own strengths and unique abilities:
How is Asperger Syndrome (AS) Different from Autistic Disorder?
AS was first identified by Dr. Hans Asperger in Austria in 1944, but his work did not find its way into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic Statistical Manual until 1994. After years of misdiagnosis or lack of diagnosis there has recently been more recognition of AS and also a very noticeable increase in the number of people diagnosed with AS in North America.