Autism Q & A: What is the autism spectrum?

By Daniel B. Kessler

No two children with autism are alike. The various challenges that make up the diagnosis of autism come in a wide range, even when they recur in the same family.

If you look at an autistic individual’s intellectual abilities, skills in social interaction, ability to communicate, challenging behaviors (hyperactivity or physical aggression) or repetitive behaviors (hand flapping), sensory sensitivities to loud noises or rough textures or even motor difficulties, you will find they vary from one person to the next. If you have met one child with autism you have met one child with autism. Each individual is uniquely different. That’s true for each of us, really.

However, there is another aspect to the term “autistic spectrum disorders.” Three of five disorders that appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM, now in its slightly revised 4th Edition) under the heading, Pervasive Developmental Disorders, are commonly referred to as “autistic spectrum disorders.” They are “autistic disorder,” “Asperger disorder” and “pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified.” Two other disorders under this same heading (PDDs) are Rett’s Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder but they differ significantly from the other three and may not be included under the term “autistic spectrum disorders” when the next edition of the DSM (the DSM-5) is due (2014). To make things even more complicated, scientists are beginning to talk about “the autisms” with the understanding that there may be several overlapping conditions that have similar underlying causes or express themselves in similar ways.

Next: What causes autism?

Daniel B. Kessler, M.D.

Daniel B. Kessler, M.D., is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and medical director of the Children’s Developmental Center at Easter Seals Southwest Human Development. His private practice, where he provides evaluation and treatment for children and adolescents, is located at Southwest Human Development.

The views he expresses in this series are based on his training, his reading of the literature and his more than 30 years of experience taking care of hundreds of kids on the autism spectrum. The series begins here.


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