Why is Autism Referred to as a Spectrum Disorder?

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a neurological disorder characterized by impaired communication, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, and difficulty reading the emotions or social cues of others. While an individual must be impaired in these areas to some degree in order to receive a diagnosis, autism is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis by any means, which is why the word spectrum is used to describe it. 

Think of another well-known spectrum – a rainbow – and consider how you might describe it. Broadly speaking, eight colors are represented in a predictable order. But upon closer inspection, there are actually innumerable shades of each color that would be nearly impossible to describe. Now, imagine you are trying to convey this nuance to someone with a vision impairment, and the task becomes even more challenging. This can be what it feels like to describe ASD to someone without direct and extensive experience living with or close to it.  

Some individuals with ASD are extremely impacted by the diagnosis and will require life-long support to meet their basic needs. They may be non-verbal or limited-verbal in terms of how they convey wants and needs to others; some will utilize an alternative mode of communication, such as a communication device. Individuals severely impacted by autism may have limited safety skills or may engage in unsafe behavior like aggression or self-injury, especially if they cannot effectively communicate their needs. They may also engage in behavior that may be disruptive but not unsafe, like making loud sounds (vocalizing) or doing something that looks unusual but feels good to them (a common example is hand flapping). 

On the other end of the spectrum are individuals whose challenges may not be apparent to others. Perhaps these people have learned strategies for successfully engaging in social interactions. Some may have found a field or social setting where their “neurological divergence,” or their differences, are an asset. Others have learned the skills that help them function without the need for assistance. Even so, be aware that some folks in this group may be dealing with challenges – such as sensory input differences – silently. Others may have difficulty navigating interpersonal relationships. 

With as many as one in 44 people falling somewhere on this spectrum, how can we be sure we are respectful of individual differences and promoting inclusivity, when the true extent of a person’s disability may not be obvious?

The best approach is to listen to what members of our autistic community and their caregivers share about their experiences and preferences, and to do what we can to ensure our workplace, school, and community settings are as supportive as possible to their needs. Try to listen with patience and understanding. Avoid jumping to conclusions about a person’s ability level based on an initial impression, because what they understand may not match how they communicate. Rather than expecting an individual with autism or other special needs to change or modify their behavior, try implementing small changes to make an environment more comfortable. You may find the accommodations benefit all members of the group – not just those with ASD.

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., BCBA, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit