About Autism

Autism is a "spectrum disorder," meaning you can be a little autistic or very autistic.  The "autism spectrum" describes a set of developmental delays and disorders which affects social and communication skills and, to a greater or lesser degree, motor and language skills. It is such a broad diagnosis that it can include people with very high and very low IQ's - and people with autism can be chatty or silent, affectionate or cold, methodical or disorganized.   The definition of autism has been very confusing, and as a result, the American Psychiatric Association has made some major changes to the diagnostic criteria and options for diagnosis.  The chart below shows how autism was diagnosed (with five different sub-diagnoses) and how the new Autism Spectrum did away with those diagnoses in favor of a single "autism spectrum."

Prior to 2013 Autism Spectrum
Autism Spectrum after May 2013

The rate of autism spectrum diagnoses increased exponentially since the end of the 1980's; there is a great deal of debate as to whether the increases are due to a true growth in the number of people with autism, to radical changes in diagnostic criteria, or to increased awareness of symptoms.  Whatever the reasons, however, more and more people at all ages are either being diagnosed or self-diagnosing with autism.  That means that your museum staff is almost certainly interacting with a great many people with autism spectrum diagnoses -- and it may well mean that members of your museum staff are discovering that they have a good deal in common with people on the autism spectrum.

People with severe (Level 3) autism may be non-verbal, have challenging and even aggressive behaviors, and may also have low IQ's.  These individuals are unlikely to be candidates for most museum programs, as their needs are very different from those of typical museum visitors.  Programs developed with these individuals in mind are likely to require extensive collaboration with specialists in autism and autism education.

People with milder forms of autism (Levels 1 and 2) are, however, very likely to be interested in museum offerings -- and may benefit tremendously from relatively simple methods for improving accessibility and inclusion.

Asperger syndrome
was a diagnosis which disappeared with the new autism criteria, though the term is still in common use.  Asperger syndrome describes individuals at the highest-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Unlike other autism spectrum disorders, Asperger syndrome is often diagnosed in teens and adults.  People with Asperger syndrome generally develop spoken language in the same way as typically developing children but have a tough time with social communication.  These difficulties that become more obvious as they get older and social expectations rise.  Because people with Asperger syndrome are often very intelligent - but "quirky" - the disorder is sometimes nicknamed "geek syndrome" or "little professor syndrome." 

The term "mild autism" is not an official diagnosis. It's simply a more descriptive term than "Asperger syndrome" or "autism." Generally speaking, when people use the term mild autism they are referring to individuals whose symptoms fit an autism spectrum diagnosis, but who has strong verbal skills and few behavioral issues. Those individuals may, however, have significant problems with social communication. They may also have problems coping with too much sensory input (loud noise, bright lights, etc.).

Like "mild" autism, high functioning autism (sometimes shortened to HFA) is a made-up term that's become more and more commonly used.  HFA is a tricky term, because it can be hard to distinguish a person with HFA from a person with Asperger syndrome.  The official distinction is that people with HFA had or have speech delays, while people with Asperger Syndrome have normal speech development.  But there may also be very real differences in terms of social awareness, personality characteristics, and other traits.  The jury is still debating the fine distinctions.

If Asperger syndrome is considered "mild" autism, then the broad autism phenotype includes those people with the merest touch of autism. Is this really autism? Or just a personality type? As with many issues related to autism, it depends on who you ask.

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