I really think that Autism Spectrum Disorder is an unfortunate name, which doesn’t really describe autistic people well at all. Today I turn my laser sights to the “Spectrum” in Autism Spectrum Disorder.
At first, Spectrum seems like it’s a cool thing to say. It seems like it’s including a whole bunch of different people. It sounds like it’s celebrating the diversity of folks with autism. One of the earliest things I heard about autism was, “When you’ve met one person with Asperger’s, you’ve met one person with Asperger’s.” This somewhat cryptic phrase means that you can’t really extrapolate anything about everyone with Asperger’s by just your experience with one person with Asperger’s. At first, the spectrum name seems inclusive and welcoming. Spectrum was popularized by lumping a ton of different things in with autism–Rhett’s Syndrome, Asperger’s Syndrome, PDD-NOS, childhood disintegrative disorder, and regular autism.
But what does spectrum really mean?
A spectrum is an arrangement of things that are differentiated by just one variable.
Take for example the electromagnetic spectrum. All of the following are types of light (or electromagnetic radiation, to be precise), that are separated by just the variable of wavelength: gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet light, visible light, infrared, microwaves, television waves, and radio waves. And even though each of these lights acts really differently, they’re really just the same thing, and the only thing that’s different among them is the variable of wavelength. For example, build something that emits tons of radio waves, and then fly toward it approaching the speed of light which will compress the variable of wavelength, and then those nice gentle radio waves will turn into fierce gamma rays, and then you’ll either be fried or turned into the Incredible Hulk.
My two points with this are that everything on a spectrum is really the same thing, and that there is only one variable that separates everything on a spectrum.
Then what is the variable that the Autism Spectrum is based on?
A clue to this variable are the phrases high-functioning and low-functioning that are used in association with autism. What do these phrases really mean in everyday use? What I’ve seen in common usage is that high functioning means that someone can pass for a neurotypical person at times, and low functioning means that the autistic person couldn’t ever pass for a neurotypical person.
I also realized that nonverbal is often synonymous with low functioning, and verbal and sociable is often synonymous with high functioning.
That’s my realization about what this illusive Autism Spectrum Disorder variable is, and this variable is really just a misnomer. The spectrum variable in Autism Spectrum Disorder currently just means how well an autistic person can verbally communicate. Low verbal communication means low functioning, or on the low side of the spectrum, and high verbal communication, including social interactions, means high functioning, or on the high side of the spectrum.
This makes a tiny bit of sense if you compare nonverbal people to the ultra-intense gamma rays of the electromagnetic spectrum, as many nonverbal people have ultra-intense thoughts and focus.
But, as someone who was nonverbal for a few years, I really don’t like this oversimplification.
I don’t think that we can simplify autism down to just one variable. I might like the acronym ASD more if the S stood for Spectra or Spectrums, but trying to simplify autism down to just one variable is way too much of an oversimplification.
My prediction is that when we finally understand autism, in maybe 20 or 30 years, then we’ll be able to accurately model autism with perhaps 4 or 5 variables. But, it will definitely be more than just one, and there will definitely be more than just one spectrum to autism.
- A post from a duck! (dinkyandme.wordpress.com)
- Autism and Asperger’s are different… at least on EEG (vectorblog.org)
- Autism manifests in boy, girl differently (rinf.com)
- Aspergers: An Interview (littlebloobleep.wordpress.com)