What Does It Mean That Autism Is a Spectrum?

by | Feb 18, 2022 | Basics of Autism

You may have heard phrases like ‘on the spectrum,’ ‘autistic,’ ‘Asperger’s,’ ‘high-functioning,’ ‘low-functioning,’ etc. 

What do they mean? 

Are these conditions all “on the spectrum”? 

What exactly is a spectrum?

The History of Autism in The United States

What we believed autism to be evolved throughout the 20th century, and we didn’t really begin to understand it until the 1980s. 

The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM), the diagnostic manual used in the United States, has reflected our evolving understanding of autism, with descriptions of the condition and diagnostic criteria changing as our understanding expanded.

In 1943, Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist and physician, wrote about children with “extreme autistic aloneness” (withdrawing into oneself), as well as “delayed echolalia,” and an “anxiously obsessive desire for the maintenance of sameness.” 

He also noted that the children were often intelligent and some had extraordinary memory.

While these observances do accurately represent some characteristics of autism, Kanner didn’t quite hit the mark.

He thought of autism as a profound emotional disturbance that did not affect cognition at all

As a result of his writing, when the second edition of the DSM, the DSM-II, was published in 1952, it defined autism as a psychiatric condition — a form of childhood schizophrenia marked by a detachment from reality. 

This view held its popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, when autism was thought to be caused by cold and unemotional mothers, dubbed ‘refrigerator mothers’ by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim

His theory has, of course, since been disproved.

The DSM-III, published in 1980, established autism as its own separate diagnosis and described it as a “pervasive developmental disorder” distinct from schizophrenia.

The DSM-IV, released in 1994 and revised in 2000, was the first edition to categorize autism as a spectrum.

What is the Autism Spectrum?

The DSM-IV listed five conditions with distinct features, placing them all on a spectrum.

The DSM-5 introduced the term ‘autism spectrum disorder,’ linking the spectrum of conditions that make up autism by “persistent impairment in reciprocal social communication and social interaction” and “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior,” both present in early childhood. 

Autism researcher Dr. Steven Gutstein defines autism as the breakdown of the the Guiding Relationship; a naturally occurring relationship between a child and their parents that promotes healthy neurological development.

Typically developing children rely on the Guiding Relationship to provide them with a safe yet challenging learning environment for mental & self growth.

In the course of development, children, their parents, and other caregivers participate together in thousands of daily tasks, conversations, playful encounters and problems.  

While on the surface these interactions may seem to be about one thing, such as mutual enjoyment, or getting a chore done, they actually have a much more important function that we refer to as Guiding  – affording the children countless opportunities for mental and self growth.

RDIconnect Podcast
Autism in Infants (follow this series to learn about Dr. Gutstein’s research)
Articles & Research papers

What Exactly Does It Mean That Autism Is a Spectrum?

Today, we tend to use “autistic” for everyone on the spectrum. 


According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network:

“There is no one way to be autistic. Some autistic people can speak, and some autistic people need to communicate in other ways. Some autistic people also have intellectual disabilities, and some autistic people don’t. Some autistic people need a lot of help in their day-to-day lives, and some autistic people only need a little help. All of these people are autistic, because there is no right or wrong way to be autistic. All of us experience autism differently, but we all contribute to the world in meaningful ways. We all deserve understanding and acceptance.”

All autistic people experience autism, and life, differently, but they are all neurodivergent, and share similar behaviors and challenges.

Emily Burke, a writer, trustee for Autistic Girls Network, and self-described “autistic student, mental health activist and autism advocate” says:

“Autism is a spectrum. This does not mean that everyone is a bit autistic. It means that every autistic person experiences different combinations of autistic traits and each to different intensities. It is non-linear and our ability to cope with different things varies day to day.”

Some autistics might have a higher IQ, live a completely independent life in adulthood, and experience success in their interpersonal relationships.

Others might have an intellectual disability, need help functioning day-to-day, or experience debilitating social or sensory problems.

All of these people are autistic, because there is no right or wrong way to be autistic.

Want to Know More?

Looking for more information on autism?

Our website is full of information about the current autism research, and the RDI® Model. 

You can also join our online community and meet other parents like you and connect with a certified consultant. 

Click to enlarge infographic.

IMAGE: Infographic


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