What is the ‘Autism Spectrum’?
This is a term used to describe variations on developmental conditions, including Asperger’s syndrome through to autism and what is sometimes called, would you believe, ‘pervasive disorder not otherwise specified’.
Confusingly, terms and diagnoses can change across different cultures, over time, and even between doctors. For various reasons, the separate diagnosis of ‘Asperger’s’ is being phased out, but it’s mentioned here because many doctors and parents still use it.
The autism spectrum covers a wide range of symptoms and different developmental difficulties and mental disabilities. Kids on the spectrum can have a range of intelligence levels, just like any kids. A kid with Asperger’s syndrome or autism could be much better at some tasks and ways of thinking than other kids. Everyone with autism isn’t a ‘mathematical genius’ despite the stereotype.
‘Pervasive disorder’ diagnoses tend to cover symptoms that still allow a person to be ‘high functioning’. So ‘high functioning’ or Asperger’s or ‘Aspie’ might be terms you hear to indicate a kid whose intelligence isn’t affected but who has difficulty with social interactions.
‘Autism’ on its own as a word tends to extend to the more intense versions of spectrum characteristics, as well as other difficulties, such as in some cases being non-verbal and entirely dependent on others. A kid can be anywhere along that spectrum from ‘mild’ to ‘severe’, and have their own unique mix of symptoms.
Most people on the spectrum don’t have ‘severe autism’, and find hobbies, jobs and families that suit their quirks, skills and difficulties in negotiating the ‘normal’ social world.
Some people on the spectrum find that they are very good at tasks and pursuits that involve intense concentration and focus or obsession, patterns, systems or collection and categories. Many ‘high-functioning’ kids on the spectrum go to mainstream schools with help; others are home-schooled. Kids with more challenges who perhaps cannot communicate with words or who have a lot of actions, such as rocking, making noises, screaming or becoming agitated, can attend a ‘special school’, though there are not enough of these schools.
Kids with recognisable characteristics can get along without any intervention if their symptoms don’t get in the way of a normal life for them. It is usually difficulties at school and the need for extra support that lead to a clinician and parent realising that the child could benefit from a diagnosis. Their ‘traits’ might just be seen as quirks, special skills or something they need extra help with now and then, such as having somebody else’s feelings explained to them.
Remember, though, that kids are individuals, and your kid, more importantly than having a ‘condition’, will have their own quirks – they may like a squeezy hug or get a twinkle of delight in their eye about certain things . . . you’ll get to know your kid.
The book Babies & Toddlers has plenty more on the possible characteristics of a kid ‘on the autism spectrum’, and where to get more individual info and help (autismspectrum.org.au is one great website recommended).
Remember, you’ll always be the expert on your own kid. Medical and other professionals can be in a team with you to help – not to give your kid a ‘label’ but, whatever their needs and strengths, to help them reach their potential.