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  • Writer's pictureSarah Alix

Autism; What is the spectrum?

The following extract comes from an excellent article published on the link below. Lynch (2019) addresses what the Autistic Spectrum means and looks like – it provides a really clear explanation and supporting visualisation of what the spectrum is.

It provides a great understanding of the spectrum and I highly recommend that you read it.

The following sections are direct quotes from this and are the work of Lynch. It is really worth a look at the whole piece which has further examples and explanations. It is a great resource to use and also to support others in their understanding of what Autism is, and what the spectrum looks like. I have not seen another article that explains this so well, and could not reproduce anything in my own words to match this explanation!


• Lynch (2019)



You often hear:

My son is on the severe end of the autism spectrum.”

“We’re all a little autistic– it’s a spectrum.”

“I’m not autistic but I’m definitely ‘on the spectrum.'”

If only people knew what a spectrum is… because they are talking about autism all wrong.

Let’s use the visible spectrum as an example.


As you can see, the various parts of the spectrum are noticeably different from each other.

Blue looks very different from red, but they are both on the visible light spectrum.

Red is not “more blue” than blue is. Red is not “more spectrum” than blue is.


But when people talk about autism they talk as if it were a gradient, not a spectrum at all.

People think you can be “a little autistic” or “extremely autistic,” the way a paint colour could be a little red or extremely red.



How people think the spectrum looks:



In fact, one of the distinguishing feature of autism is what the DSM-V calls an “uneven profile of abilities.” There’s a reason people like to say that “if you have met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Every autistic person presents slightly differently.

That’s because autism isn’t one condition. It is a collection of related neurological conditions that are so intertwined and so impossible to pick apart that professionals have stopped trying.


The autism spectrum looks more like this:

All autistic people are affected in one way or another in most or all of these boxes – a rainbow of traits.




If you only check one or two boxes, then they don’t call it autism– they call it something else.

• For example, if you ONLY struggle with communication, then they call that social communication disorder.

• If you ONLY have problems with body movement/control then that is called dyspraxia or developmental coordination disorder.

• If you ONLY have sensory processing issues then that is sensory processing disorder.

• But if you have all of the above and more, they call it autism.

• You can see how ridiculous it seems, therefore, when someone says “we’re all a little autistic” because they also hate fluorescent lights or because they also feel awkward in social situations. That’s like saying that you are dressed “a little rainbowy” when you are only wearing red. (I love the use of this phrase as it explains it so well!)

• Having sensory processing issues doesn’t make you “a little autistic.” It makes you someone with sensory processing problems. Autistic people will understand your struggles and welcome you as a fellow neurodivergent cousin, but that’s it.

• But in order for a person to be considered autistic, they must have difficulty in multiple categories spanning the spectrum. Diagnosis depends on evidence that you do span the spectrum in observable ways.


• Lynch (2019)


The next section covers some Autism facts:

• Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that affects how people perceive, communicate and interact with the world.

• Autism is referred to as a spectrum because, while there are similar core areas affected, each child or person diagnosed will experience them differently.

• In the 1980s, it was estimated that there were only 4–5 per 10,000 people with autism. Today, estimates suggest as many as 1 in 100 or 1 in 40 (depending on what piece of research you read!) meet the current criteria for a diagnosis. This increase has arisen partly because the diagnostic criteria have changed and widened over time and there is now much greater awareness, information and knowledge about autism.


• In the early days of autism in the 1940s and for the next four decades, it was thought that most people with autism also had a learning disability, but it is now known that only a third of the autism population are learning disabled and two thirds are of average or above average intellectual attainment.

• We are not ‘all a little bit autistic’ and autistic people can get really offended by this

• Autistic people do not need fixing, or need medication to have their ‘symptoms’ reduced (eg to stop them from stimming)

• Autistic people may need medication for other co-occurring differences such as ADHD or anxiety

• Diagnosis and research into autistic girls is on the increase, and the development of new tools are needed as the current tools are created for the assessment of boys


In education, there are four areas of difference in an autistic child or young person that can impact on learning. It is vital that staff acknowledge that autistic children and young people may have different ways of:

• Interacting, playing and developing relationships

• Processing information

• Taking in and perceiving sensory information

• Communicating, understanding and using language


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