Autism: What's a "spectrum" anyway?

2011-12-29 13:11

People occasionally see autism and Asperger Syndrome and related things referred to as “autism spectrum disorders” (ASD). People who work in the field tend to refer to someone being “on the spectrum”.


Because the traits vary. Lots of traits. Highly variable. Not all autistic people have the same set of autistic traits. They don’t always come with the same degree of expression. So, say I have sensory integration difficulties (I do), and also I have trouble reading faces (I do). Someone else might be better at faces, and worse at sensory integration, than me. It’s not just a matter of “more severe” or “less severe”.

This creates a problem, which is that people tend to assume that, if one autistic person can do something, so can others, especially others with “less severe” autism. That’s not how it works. I’m generally high-functioning, I almost never get too overloaded to make mouth noises (though it took me about 5-10 minutes of a shopping trip to prepare for the challenges of knowing when to say “thanks” or “paper” during grocery checkout), and so on… But I can still be unable to handle stuff that other people find trivial.

And this creates a problem. Say you’re pretty good at social processing, but a lot of people know that in general autistics aren’t, and you are known to them to be autistic:

  • People might not believe you’re autistic.
  • People might treat you like an idiot.
  • People might disregard your evaluations because they think they know that you’re not good at social things.
  • People might refuse to believe that a particular mistake was unintentional if you do miss something.

I’ve had all of those happen.

Peter Seebach