top of page

What is Autism?

Definitions Used by the Medical Establishment


"Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a group of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by repetitive and characteristic patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction. The symptoms are present from early childhood and affect daily functioning."



"Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability  that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people.

The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less. A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder. (CDC)" 

Definitions Used by Parent & Societal Advocates

Autism Speaks

"Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today.

We know that there is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently."

Stuart Murray

"(We know) Autism is:

  • A neurobiological condition

  • Almost certainly biogenetic in origin

  • A lifelong condition

  • Affects more people than was previously known

  • Is a spectrum condition

  • People with Autism are considered disabled but many choose to see themselves as different.


Definitions Used by Autists


Version 1.01 (15 October 2019)

All autistic people experience the human social world significantly different from typical individuals. The difference in autistic social cognition is best described in terms of

  • A heightened level of conscious processing of raw information signals from the environment

  • An absence or a significantly reduced level of subconscious filtering of social information.

  • Autistic children: take longer to decode non-verbal signals.

  • Hyper- and/or hypo-sensitivity to certain sensory inputs from the physical environment.
    With respect to autistic sensory sensitivity there are huge differences between autists. 

  • Individually unique cognitive autistic lenses + individually unique usage patterns  + unique levels of expertise and creativity 

  • Autistic inertia: difficulty starting things, and stopping things. 

Autistic cognition shapes the human experience of the world across multiple social dimensions, including social motivations, social interactions, the way of developing trust, and the way of making friends."

There are multiple definitions of Autism presented across many medical agencies such as the CDC, NIMH (National Institute of Mental health), NINDS (National Institute of Neurobiological Disorders and Stroke); across parental and societal advocacy agencies like, Autism Speaks & The Autism Society; and finally as lived experiences by Autistic people.

As can be seen from the medical definitions and even the advocacy definitions, Autism is called a 'spectrum disorder'.

There are a few reasons this term is relevant to note. 

1. This means that it is perceived as a 'disorder', or not in order and therefore something that creates challenges and therefore a dis/ability. So it is seen as a deficit which means that it is being compared to something that is considered a whole or 'normal'. A distinctly ableist outlook. 

2. Since a spectrum in essence is seen to have one end and another end, the use of this term serves to function almost as a guide towards looking for 'highs and lows' or 'left and right' or 'good and bad'. The vocabulary might change but the implication does not and reflects in the ways we so frequently hear people speak about autistic people. Once again an ableist and center focused approach to viewing difference. 

The Neuroclastic definition is an amalgamation of the lived experiences of many autistic people and sees difference in ability simply as a representation of differentiated cognition. Not better, not worse, just different. It presents the idea of neurodiveristy and therefore challenges the notions of ableism and normalcy.

Autism has a relatively short history as a recognized dis/ability, however discussions about it are often contentious.

From the onset of its researched history starting around the 1930s, the one huge gap in knowledge has been about causation, and eludes medical research to this day.  This has resulted in a space where almost any ideas about causation receive societal comment and discussion - irrespective of their truthfulness, factualness or dependability. The second controversial and debated subject revolves around the 'cure'. The term 'cure' has different meanings when used in the context of autism. It can be looked at by some as the need for 'change' or 'treatment'; by others as an open statement that human difference is not of value. Either way, it always lends itself to passionate and intense debate. Once again the gap in knowledge of the causation lends itself to allowing people to speculate about a 'cure'. 

Causation and Cure are the root of why diagnosis, treatment and even gender issues all present conflicted ideas and methods in the realm of autism advocacy. It is my contention that the conflicts that arise as it pertains to these more functional aspects of autism, are rooted in deeper ideological and philosophical issues about what it means to be human.
Our beliefs about neurodiversity, ableism, what the autism spectrum really is, all play into what we believe about the cause and cure. It is what then translates into funding for further research in the field of autism. Whether this research then focuses on knowing why autism happens so that it can deploy means to end it, or a world that wants to know why autism happens so it can help support, all depends on how we understand ourselves and our humanness. 

Therefore the intent of this resource is to present a multi faceted look at the current definitions of autism from different perspectives; a look at the short but tumultuous history of autism research, laws and 'treatment'; and finally reflect on these deeper beliefs that affect present day and future understanding of Autism.

Autism is also a complex and emotionally charged subject for many. It is my deepest desire that I am able to approach the subject using a mindful, and respectful lens.

Two resources that I highly recommend that have been particularly significant in expanding my thinking and exploration are:
The website Neuroclastic: The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People; 
and the text, Autism, By Stuart Murray. 
Autism Speaks. (n.d.). What Is Autism? Retrieved November 15, 2020, from
CDC. (2020, March 25). What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Retrieved November 15, 2020, from
Miller, K. (2015, April 01). The Autism Paradox. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from
Murray, S. (2012). Autism. New York: Routledge.
NeuroClastic: What Is Autism? (2019, October 15). Retrieved November 15, 2020, from
NINDS. (2020, March). Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from
bottom of page