What is a Spectrum Disorder?

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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 08 October 2019
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A spectrum disorder is a condition connected by subgroups that have similar symptoms that range from mild to severe. The term is used in psychiatry to divide brain disorders into subtypes based on how the disability affects the patient. The most common references to spectrum disorder involve conditions like autism, a brain defect that leads to social, behavioral, and learning differences.

Autism spectrum disorder is further divided into Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder. Asperger syndrome is considered a milder form of autism, with many of the same symptoms and behaviors. Pervasive developmental disorder is an overall category when the patient’s disabilities are similar but cannot be positively defined as autism or Asperger syndrome.

Children with spectrum disorders lack normal social skills and often have trouble interacting with other kids and adults. They may avoid eye contact and appear uninterested when spoken to. Some people with these disorders prefer to be alone, and resist any attempts at affection. They may have speech disabilities that contribute to communication difficulty.

Routine is commonly very important to those with spectrum disorders. Change in routine or surroundings can be upsetting, along with odd reactions to unexpected sound. The disability might cause the child to repeat a sound or activity over and over again. Sometimes he or she becomes fixated on one area of interest to the exclusion of other activities.


Savant spectrum disorder is a rare but fascinating condition where a severely mentally retarded person has extraordinary talent in a certain area. The talent commonly is associated with one section of the brain, and involves numbers, art, music, or memory. Although savant disorder falls into a subgroup of autism spectrum disorder, only about half of savants have autism.

Another condition that causes brain damage and learning disabilities is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which is related to fetal alcohol syndrome. Developmental and cognitive problems can result from a mother who drinks alcohol while pregnant. The severity of the disabilities depends on how often the woman drank, the amount of alcohol consumed, and at what point in her pregnancy she used it. In extreme cases, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can lead to mental retardation.

Early signs of these disorders include a child who does not speak any words at the age of 16 months; by the age of two, the child might not be able to put two words together. He or she commonly does not point at objects when they are presented or in view, such as a train passing by. Emotionally, children with this disability may not want to be held or cuddled, and might be sensitive to touch.


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