Autism encompasses various neurodevelopmental disorders, each positioned along a shared spectrum. In the past, most autism experts differentiated between the types of autism to show their distinct traits on a clinical level; individuals with autism usually received a name-specific diagnosis that clarified their unique challenges. While these names still exist and have meaning when characterizing the various autism symptoms, their usage has drastically declined on both a clinical and household basis. Since up-to-date terminology is a hot topic within the autism community, it’s essential to know why experts have consolidated each type into one overarching condition: autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
At ABA Centers of America, we strictly abide by the current terminology trends within the autism community. We understand the complexity of autism spectrum disorder and the significance of using accurate phrases in all settings. Let’s check out the types of autism, what makes them unique, and why terminology matters for those on the spectrum.
Defining “Spectrum” in Autism Spectrum Disorder
As the name suggests, autism spectrum disorder denotes an expansive range that individualizes each case, making them unique to the diagnosed person. No two people with autism share the same challenges and symptoms. Instead, those with ASD can view these differences as part of the larger spectrum, and the challenges they experience place them on it at a specific point.
For this reason, autism spectrum disorder now encompasses all types of autism, no matter the severity or individual’s age. This change began in 2013 when the American Psychiatric Association released the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). A mouthful of a name but incredibly important in the community, the DSM-5 update shifted the terminology autism experts used in all scholarly, social, and clinical contexts.
Outdated Terms for the Types of Autism
Below are some of the more prominent types of autism that experts previously used to distinguish cases:
1. Asperger Syndrome – Perhaps the most popular type of autism, not in frequency of diagnoses but in terms of social significance, Asperger Syndrome no longer applies in any clinical setting. The DSM-5 update in 2013 ended its use, with communities now reclassifying it as Level 1 autism spectrum disorder.
Previously, experts depicted individuals with Asperger Syndrome as having above-average intelligence and solid verbal communication but an ineptitude to social interactions and expressing emotions. Frequent occurrences in these diagnoses included:
- Difficulties when alternating between tasks or activities
- Inflexibility in behavior and thought
- Problems with executive functioning
- Challenges interacting with peers at home or in school
- Monotone or flat speech
- Inability to express feelings through speech or change vocal pitch to fit their current environment
2. Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) – This extensive initialism originally denoted a group of disorders characterized by impairment in social interaction development, verbal and non-verbal communication, imaginative activity, and restricted or repetitive interests.
Diagnosticians typically diagnosed PDD-NOS in children who did not fully meet the criteria for ASD, Asperger, or other types of autism but had several characteristics. As a result, many experts referred to PDD-NOS as “subthreshold autism” since it described someone with some but not all symptoms of autism. Children diagnosed with PDD-NOS commonly exhibited features including:
- Poor social skills
- Preference of being alone
- Reluctancy to give or receive direct eye contact
- Difficulties with meaningful interactions
- Lack of desire to share activities with others
- Unintentional aggression when attempting to be social
- Poor imaginative play skills
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of social empathy
3. Rett Syndrome – This rare neurodevelopmental disorder presents itself in infancy and predominantly affects girls, though boys can still receive a diagnosis. The cause of Rett Syndrome derives from a mutation in the methyl CpG binding protein 2, or the MECP2 gene (pronounced meck-pea-two); this mutation causes the gene to not function as it should, giving them either too little or too much of the gene.
Unlike other types of autism, individuals with Rett Syndrome typically follow a standard growth development process but eventually experience complications such as:
- Slowing of development
- Cognitive and motor function problems
- Slowed brain and head growth
- Loss of mobility in the hands
- Difficulties walking or a wide-based gait
- Digestive issues
- Sleep disturbances
- Teeth grinding and difficulty chewing
- Breathing difficulties while awake
4. Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) – Also known as Heller’s Syndrome and Disintegrative Psychosis, CDD refers to a delayed onset of developmental complications in language, motor skills, and social abilities. Children with CDD experience standard development in these areas, but symptoms arise between three and ten. While the cause is unknown, CDD is much more common in boys, with only 1 in 10 cases being girls.
The disorder typically starts suddenly, with regressions progressively growing more frequent in at least two significant developmental aspects of a child’s life. Children with childhood disintegrative disorder may lose any of the following skills:
- Acquired language and vocabulary
- Social skills
- Adaptive behaviors
- Some motor skills
- Toileting skills, if previously established
5. Kanner’s Syndrome – Discovered in 1943, Kanner’s Syndrome was initially referred to as infantile autism or as a classic autistic disorder. Diagnosed children have no physical symptoms, instead exhibiting underlying characteristics such as:
- Uncontrolled speech
- Lack of emotional attachment
- Challenges with communication and engaging interactions
- Obsession with handling objects
- High visuospatial and rote memory but considerable difficulties in other academic areas
How to Address Autism in Conversation
When discussing autism terminology, one area of focus is knowing how to talk about it in casual settings. Terms like “autistic,” “neurodivergent,” and “neurotypical” have been the subject of backlash and heavy debate regarding their usage. While some claim these are insensitive toward those on the spectrum, many individuals with autism have no problem using them or if a peer uses them. Often, it comes down to personal preference of who you’re speaking with or about.
A general rule of thumb is to refer to these individuals as “someone with autism” or “someone on the spectrum.” Saying someone is autistic may not be malicious, but it can come off as ignorant or naïve. On the contrary, claiming someone with any form of autism has Asperger Syndrome or has special needs is advised against. Generalizing these symptoms discredits the individual experience each person with autism has.
Your best bet? Be open about it. Don’t be afraid to ask their preferences if you’re talking to someone on the spectrum. Chances are, they’ll not only tell you their views but might be open to discussing further topics in a similar scope. Most people with autism want to be viewed and treated the same as their peers but wish for people to acknowledge their differences respectfully and without having to “walk on eggshells to avoid discomfort.”
ABA Centers of America Helps Those on the Spectrum
No matter where someone is on the spectrum, ABA therapy is an evidence-based approach to reducing challenging behaviors of autism while teaching crucial developmental and behavioral skills. With clinics throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire and rapidly expanding to regions beyond, ABA Centers of America offers comprehensive ABA therapy to children and teens with all types of autism. Our tailored approach gives children the tools to achieve their goals and live meaningful lives.
Call (844) 923-4222 or click here for more information regarding our ABA therapy services or a free consultation.