What is the Autistic Spectrum?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
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The autistic spectrum is a term for a spectrum along which people may be placed based on the autistic traits they demonstrate. The “low end” of the autistic spectrum would be full-blown, extremely low-functioning autism. The “high end” of the autistic spectrum would include people who behave almost entirely normally, or could even be consider excessively socialized.

Autism in general is described as a disability that stems from problems with the central nervous system. It includes a wide range of symptoms, which in many cases are open for debate, and the causes are still not entirely understood in all diagnosed cases. Autism can usually be detected before the age of three, and certain warning traits may help identify the disability early on.

The basic three classes of autistic disability are impairment of communication, impairment of social functioning, and a lack of imaginative thinking. Often manifesting as autistic traits are a set of disabilities related to problems with sensory input or control.

Communication impairment may manifest as a number of things, including: Repetitive use of the same phrases or entire sentences; an extremely delayed onset for learning language or speaking; failure to understand figures of speech, instead relying on literal interpretations; inability to understand nonverbal cues and communication; an extreme use of formal, stilted language. While many other traits exist in the autistic spectrum, these are some of the most frequent and easy to recognize.


Social impairment may manifest as, among other things: lack of empathy; general awkwardness; inability to detect fraud or being conned; terse and clipped social interactions; failure, or lack of desire to make friends; consistent avoidance of eye contact.

Imaginative impairment generally manifests as: an inability to fully grasp abstract modes of thinking; use of poetic discourse; obsessive focus; minute attention to details; failure to grasp things as a unified whole; nearly slavish commitment to routine.

It is important to note that most people who fall on the autistic spectrum will display only a small number of these features — indeed, that is why such a spectrum exists. A person who finds themselves plagued by a great deal of these traits will likely be a very “low functioning” autistic on the autistic spectrum. Someone who displays only a handful may never have been diagnosed as autistic at all, and would be very high on the autistic spectrum.

Some of these traits, as can likely be seen by looking over them carefully, may even prove beneficial in some circumstances. Many people who fall on the high end of the autistic spectrum find themselves succeeding in specialized fields. For example, someone high on the autistic spectrum who has an obsessive focus and incredible attention to detail may do very well as an engineer or in certain sciences. Many of these environments do not require high-levels of social functioning, allowing people who perhaps once would have been seen as highly dysfunctional to instead flourish.

Finally, it should be noted that the autistic spectrum is far from perfect. The study of autism is incomplete, and there is a great deal of debate as to what precisely does and does not constitute the disability.


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