What is Autism? The answer to this question may depend on your point of view. The medical perspective tends to regard autism as a disorder. The Neurodivergent perspective does not presume a disorder, but proposes that Autism is a common neurological variant. If a disability is associated with Autism, the medical model indicates that the disability arises directly as a result of neurological differences. The Neurodivergent community proposes a social model of disability where Autistic people and others with neurocognitive differences are primarily disadvantaged by a society that wasn’t designed for them. Both perspectives agree that genetic neurological differences are involved.
Here is a concise definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder based on the current DSM-5 diagnostic scheme1. Autism is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder which means that the brain develops atypically and a disease process is involved.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder defined by difficulties in social communication and interaction, as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. The social communication domain includes difficulties in reciprocal social interaction; deficits in social communication; and impairments in ability to develop, maintain, and understand relationships. Symptoms associated with the restricted and repetitive behavior domain manifest across motor, verbal, non-verbal, and sensory modalities. Observed behaviors in the restricted and repetitive domain may include repetitive body movements, resistance to change, insistence on sameness, ritualized behaviors, narrow interests, restricted activities and hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory stimuli.
Medical Perspective Notes:
- These symptoms only represent those aspects of autism that differentiate it from other disorders and differentiates it from what the medical profession considers as healthy functioning. The differences experienced by Autistic people are broader and more varied and contain more strengths than what is represented in the DSM. The medical profession has been moving in the direction of accepting the full spectrum of Autism for many years, and their current definition of Autism is an improvement over previous models. Most professionals working with Autistic people have more advanced understandings of Autism than what is represented by the current medical model.
Autism1 is a genetically-based human neurological variant. The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness2. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable.
Autism is a developmental phenomenon, meaning that it begins in utero and has a pervasive influence on development, on multiple levels, throughout the lifespan. Autism produces distinctive, atypical ways of thinking, moving, interaction, and sensory and cognitive processing. One analogy that has often been made is that autistic individuals have a different neurological “operating system” than non-autistic individuals.
According to current estimates, somewhere between one percent and two percent of the world’s population is autistic. While the number of individuals diagnosed as autistic has increased continually over the past few decades, evidence suggests that this increase in diagnosis is the result of increased public and professional awareness, rather than an actual increase in the prevalence of autism.
Despite underlying neurological commonalities, autistic individuals are vastly different from one another. Some autistic individuals exhibit exceptional cognitive talents. However, in the context of a society designed around the sensory, cognitive, developmental, and social needs of non-autistic individuals, autistic individuals are almost always disabled to some degree – sometimes quite obviously, and sometimes more subtly.
The realm of social interaction is one context in which autistic individuals tend to consistently be disabled. An autistic child’s sensory experience of the world is more intense and chaotic than that of a non-autistic child, and the ongoing task of navigating and integrating that experience thus occupies more of the autistic child’s attention and energy. This means the autistic child has less attention and energy available to focus on the subtleties of social interaction. Difficulty meeting the social expectations of non-autistics often results in social rejection, which further compounds social difficulties and impedes social development. For this reason, autism has been frequently misconstrued as being essentially a set of “social and communication deficits,” by those who are unaware that the social challenges faced by autistic individuals are just by-products of the intense and chaotic nature of autistic sensory and cognitive experience.
Autism is still widely regarded as a “disorder,” but this view has been challenged in recent years by proponents of the neurodiversity model, which holds that autism and other neurocognitive variants are simply part of the natural spectrum of human biodiversity, like variations in ethnicity or sexual orientation (which have also been pathologized in the past). Ultimately, to describe autism as a disorder represents a value judgment rather than a scientific fact.
- Dr. Nick Walker of www.neurocosmopolitanism.com allows this definition of Autism to be copied and used freely.
- Synaptic overgrowth in focal areas of grey matter is accompanied by less developed tracks of white matter made of axons that carry information from one place to another in the brain. This makes certain aspects of information processing slower and less coordinated, accounting for some of the motor, language and communication difficulties frequently experienced by Autistic people.
Two other definitions of Autism from a Neurodivergent point of view can be found at: