It might seem like a funny question at first. After all, most people have heard of autism. But, despite public awareness, most people don’t actually know that much about autism.
Although the world has known about autism for some time, its description and diagnostic criteria has changed significantly throughout history. The second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), released in 1952, described autism as a form of childhood schizophrenia. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, autism was thought to be a result of “refrigerator mothers” who were unemotional and cold towards their children.
With time and further research, the “refrigerator mother” theory was disproved. Instead, autism was shown to have biological roots stemming from differences in brain development. In 1980, the third edition of the DSM defined autism as a developmental disorder that was separate from schizophrenia.
Since then, clinicians and researchers have learned that autism is most likely a spectrum of conditions rather than one single condition. The DSM-IV attempted to designate several groups on the autism spectrum with diagnoses such as Asperger’s Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not-Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Rett Syndrome, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD).
By 2013, with the release of the DSM-V, autism spectrum disorder was introduced. This new diagnosis was controversial, covering a wide range of very unique individuals. Despite its controversy, grouping all of the previous diagnoses together under the autism spectrum was more reflective of current genetic research. After the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, many researchers hoped to find genetic links to various autism spectrum conditions. But, they weren’t able to single out any one autism gene. Instead, they found hundreds, none of which could be linked to autism exclusively.
Because of this, it doesn’t make much sense to think of autism as a linear spectrum, going from more to less autistic. Instead, the autism spectrum is best defined as a color wheel, in which each individual makes up a specific shade. And the shade they are may change from day to day. For example, some days I find that my sensory issues are extremely difficult to deal with, while other days I hardly notice them at all.
Furthermore, the color wheel is a beneficial visual for the autism spectrum because it illustrates that not “everyone’s a little autistic”. Autism is a completely different neurotype. Therefore, you are either autistic or you are not.
But what does it actually mean to be autistic?
To be honest, it’s really difficult to define!
In order to have an autism diagnosis, autistic people must show difficulty in social communication/interaction and repetitive patterns of behavior. These traits must be present throughout childhood and cause some level of impairment during day to day life.
In addition to the variation on the autism spectrum itself, sometimes people unfamiliar with autism are confused by the presence of co-occurring conditions. For example, although autism and intellectual disabilities can both be present in an individual, autism itself is not an intellectual disability. Such an autistic individual would be said to have co-occurring intellectual disability.
To help provide my readers with a better understanding of autism, I have provided videos and links to other autistic creators. The best way to learn about autism is from actually autistic people!
Autistic TikTok Creators: