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Autism is the word most people use when they are talking about what is now known as Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD is a complex range of conditions classified as neurodevelopmental disorders that were finally grouped together in the DSM as recently as 2013. However, doctors understanding of autism as a spectrum dates back to 1944 at the earliest when German scientist Hans Asperger first described a “milder” form of autism now known as Asperger’s Syndrome. When you consider the word spectrum in regards to autism, all that it means is that there is a wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience.
Autism might seem like it is more prevalent now than it has ever been before but the truth is that doctors just have a deeper understanding of autism now than they used to and great strides have been made in improving screening and diagnostic techniques. Autism was first used as a term in 1908; however, at that time it referred to a subset of schizophrenic patients that were intelligent but exhibited exceptionally withdrawn behaviors. Dr. Leo Kanner used the word to describe patients he saw that had trouble adapting to change and participating in social situations for the first time in 1943 and that was the beginning of what we know the condition to be today. He called this “early infantile autism” and then a milder form of the condition was discovered a year later and called Asperger’s Syndrome. Even though the existence of both conditions proved that autism was a spectrum, it would be decades before doctors would officially define spectrum. Both conditions were classified under schizophrenia until “Infantile autism” was first put in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980. The 1987 DSM changed this disorder to “autism disorder” and then later, in 1994, Asperger’s Syndrome was added.
In 2013, the DSM-5 condensed all of the defined subcategories of the condition into one umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) including Asperger’s Syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, and childhood disintegrative disorder. The long list of diagnostic criteria was stripped down to simply include the following two categories of symptoms: Impaired social communication and/or interaction and; restricted and/or repetitive behaviors. Spectrum disorder is a term used to describe a mental disorder that includes a range of linked conditions; it also includes singular symptoms and traits. ASD is a spectrum disorder in the sense that the presence and severity of different symptoms and traits are highly individual. ASD doesn’t affect any two people in the same way. Symptoms people on the spectrum experience can range from things like anxiety, attention problems, and depression to things that are relatively more severe such as intellectual disabilities, impaired motor skills, and difficulties with speech and language. Less than half of the people diagnosed with ASD have an IQ below 70 and many others have an IQ that is above average. A quarter of the people on the spectrum are nonverbal but some big voices in history such as singer Susan Boyle, director Tim Burton, and more were on the spectrum. Other notable figures with ASD include Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and more. Predicting how ASD is going to affect someone and how that will outwardly manifest is impossible so the added spectrum definition truly reflects our increased understanding of the disorder and forward movement in treating it.