What is Autism?

It’s a good question! Everyone tells you what to do, how to do it, but has anyone stopped to tell you what Autism really is or how it is diagnosed?

If not, you’ve come to the right place. A short and sweet description of what Autism is based on some of the most renowned sources in North America.

Let’s start out talking about the DSM-5. It’s a fancy term that stands for The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition. Simply put, it is a formal body that categorizes diagnostic criteria that allows professionals to make a decision about whether a child meets criteria for a certain diagnosis or not.

By definition, Autism is, “a mental disorder that starts in early childhood, in which a person finds it very difficult to communicate or form relationships with others and often shows limited or repeated patterns of thought and behaviour” (Oxford Learner Dictionaries, 2021).

The DSM-5 is able to provide more detail. An individual must meet all 3 criteria in section A, which are as follows:

  1. “Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):
    • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
    • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
    • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understand relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.”

(“Diagnostic Criteria.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 June 2020, http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html.)

Then, the individual must also have 2 out of the following 4 types of restricted, repetitive, behaviours (Section B):

  • “Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat same food every day).
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
  • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g. apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).”

(“Diagnostic Criteria.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 June 2020, http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html.)

Again, knowledge is power and hopefully the above information makes things a bit clearer for you. It is okay to have more questions about this. Excellent resources will include your primary care physicians, psychiatrists, and clinical experts such as psychologists who have training in the area of diagnostics.