The term, on the spectrum, is shorthand for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is an umbrella term used by the medical, psychiatric, and special education communities for developmental disorders previously diagnosed separately as Asperger syndrome, pervasive development disorder, Rett syndrome, and others.
However, it is often used as a slang term to describe a person who struggles to communicate, empathize, or socialize. This creates a generalization of the spectrum that often insults people who are actually on the spectrum.
For example, a child with terrible behavior may simply be just that – a child with terrible behavior. Saying such a child is on the spectrum adds to the myth that people on the spectrum have terrible behavior. While behavioral issues may be present in some cases, it is often far from the truth for all individuals with ASD.
So what does on the spectrum really mean? It refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication, according to autismspeak.org.
“Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social communication,” Yolanda Holler-Managan, MD, said in an article by Northwestern Medicine. “It can involve repetitive behaviors, high or low sensitivity to sensory experiences, restricted interests, and strict adherence to routine. Since it is considered to be a spectrum disorder, each person’s symptoms can vary.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 44 children in the United States. Approximately 50 percent of people on the spectrum do not have an intellectual disability. Some people with autism may require significant help to go about their daily lives while others may be fully independent.
April is World Autism Month beginning with the United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day on April 2. Organizations like Autism Speaks and the American Autism Association are seeking to raise awareness, acceptance, and empowerment for the autism community. Caretakers, parents, teachers, therapists, and people with ASD can all share their stories and positively impact the image of autism.