What does it mean to be “on the spectrum?”

In the world of special education there are many buzz words and phrases thrown around that people “in the know” understand but tend to confuse the general public.  “On the spectrum” is one such phrase. Does this mean that a child or adult has autism?  Does  it mean they have Aspergers?  What does it mean exactly?  Let’s take a moment to examine this.

“On the spectrum” usually refers to the specific set of behavioral and developmental problems and the challenges associated with autism spectrum disorder. A diagnosis of ASD means that your child’s communication, social, and play skills are affected in some way. To add to the confusion, experts use different names to describe ASD.  These include:

  • Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD)
  • Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
  • Asperger syndrome
  • High functioning autism

All of these names fall under the term ASD. We use the terms autism, autism spectrum disorder, or “on the spectrum.”

Professionals and laypeople alike refer to children who are on the spectrum meaning they have some form or degree of autism. Where your child falls on this spectrum means they exhibit different behavioral patterns. Classic autism, or autistic disorder, is the most severe of the autism spectrum disorders. Milder variants are Asperger’s Syndrome, sometimes called high-functioning autism, and PDD-NOS, or atypical autism. According to the Autism Spectrum Resource Center, only 20% of people on the autism spectrum have classic autism. The overwhelming majority fall somewhere on the milder range of the spectrum.

In order to determine whether your child has autism, a related autism spectrum disorder, or another developmental condition, clinicians look carefully at the way your child socializes, communicates, and behaves. Diagnosis is based on the patterns of behavior that are revealed during evaluation. The team of specialists involved in diagnosing your child may include:

  • Child psychologists
  • Child psychiatrists
  • Speech pathologists
  • Developmental pediatricians
  • Pediatric neurologists
  • Audiologists
  • Physical therapists
  • Special education teachers

Determining where your child falls “on the spectrum” is not a brief process. There is no single medical test that can diagnose it definitively; instead, in order to accurately pinpoint your child’s problem, multiple evaluations and tests are necessary.