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“It’s a Spectrum” Doesn’t Mean What You Think9 min read

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Everyone knows that autism is a spec­trum. People bring it up all the time.

“My son is on the severe end of the autism spec­trum.”

“We’re all a little autistic– it’s a spec­trum.”

“I’m not autistic but I’m def­i­nitely ‘on the spec­trum.’ ”

If only people knew what a spec­trum is… because they are talking about autism all wrong.

Let’s use the vis­ible spec­trum as an example.

The spectrum of light. From left to right: Violet from 380 to 450 nanometer wavelength, blue from 450 to 495 nanometer wavelength, green from 495 to 570 nanometers, yellow from 570 to 590 nanometers, orange from 590 to 620 nanometers, and red from 620 to 750 nanometer wavelength of light.

As you can see, the var­ious parts of the spec­trum are notice­ably dif­ferent from each other. Blue looks very dif­ferent from red, but they are both on the vis­ible light spec­trum.

Red is not “more blue” than blue is. Red is not “more spec­trum” than blue is.

When people dis­cuss colours, they don’t talk about how “far along” the spec­trum a colour is. They don’t say “my walls are on the high end of the spec­trum” or “I look best in colours that are on the low end of the spec­trum.”

But when people talk about autism they talk as if it were a gra­dient, not a spec­trum at all.

People think you can be “a little autistic” or “extremely autistic,” the way a paint colour could be a little red or extremely red.

A line going from white to slightly more red to bright red. On the left near the white/pink it says "a little quirky." To the right of that says "definitely autistic." On the right side in bright red it says "tragic autistic."
How people think the spec­trum looks

But autism isn’t that simple.

Autism isn’t a set of defined symp­toms that col­lec­tively worsen as you move “up” the spec­trum.

In fact, one of the dis­tin­guishing fea­tures of autism is what the DSM‑V calls an “uneven pro­file of abil­i­ties.” There’s a reason people like to say that “if you have met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every autistic person presents slightly dif­fer­ently.

That’s because autism isn’t one con­di­tion. It is a col­lec­tion of related neu­ro­log­ical con­di­tions that are so inter­twined and so impos­sible to pick apart that pro­fes­sionals have stopped trying.

The autism spectrum looks more like this:

The spectrum of light with descriptions at the bottom from left to right with different categories. From left to right: Pragmatic language (social communication including body language, eye contact, small talk, and turn-taking conversation), social awareness (ability to pick up on social etiquette, social norms, taboos. Ability to form and maintain relationships), monotropic mindset (Narrow but intense ability to focus, resulting in "obsessive" interests and difficulty task-switching), information processing (ability to assimilate and apply new information quickly or to adapt to new environments or situations), sensory processing (challenges interpreting sensory information, hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to stimuli), repetitive behaviors (tendency to "stim" in response to varying emotions. Can be beneficial or harmful in nature), neuro-motor differences (Ability to control body movements. Ranges from clumsiness to complete loss of ability to move with intention).

All autistic people are affected in one way or another in most or all of these boxes — a rainbow of traits.

If you only check one or two boxes, then they don’t call it autism– they call it some­thing else.

For example, if you ONLY struggle with com­mu­ni­ca­tion, then they call that social com­mu­ni­ca­tion dis­order.

If you ONLY have prob­lems with body movement/control then that is called dys­praxia or devel­op­mental coor­di­na­tion dis­order.

If you ONLY have sen­sory pro­cessing issues then that is sen­sory pro­cessing dis­order.

But if you have all of the above and more, they call it autism.

You can see how ridicu­lous it seems, there­fore, when someone says “we’re all a little autistic” because they also hate flu­o­res­cent lights or because they also feel awk­ward in social sit­u­a­tions. That’s like saying that you are dressed “a little rain­bowy” when you are only wearing red.

Having sen­sory pro­cessing issues doesn’t make you “a little autistic.” It makes you someone with sen­sory pro­cessing prob­lems. Autistic people will under­stand your strug­gles and wel­come you as a fellow neu­ro­di­ver­gent cousin, but that’s it.

But in order for a person to be con­sid­ered autistic, they must have dif­fi­culty in mul­tiple cat­e­gories span­ning the spec­trum. Diagnosis depends on evi­dence that you do span the spec­trum in observ­able ways.

Some com­mon­al­i­ties are less obvious and are not required for diag­nosis but are almost universally-reported by autistic people.

Each autistic person is affected strongly enough in one or more cat­e­gories for it to be dis­abling in some way. But each per­son’s dom­i­nant colour palette may look dif­ferent.

Here are some exam­ples of how autism could man­i­fest in three dif­ferent people.

Person One

Same image as above with darkened or lightened colors and specific descriptions of each area. This person absorbs written word easily, dislikes certain sounds, tends to tap fingers on desk, is somewatch clumsy, forgets to say hello or goodbye, and tends to miss subtle social cues.

Person Two

Same image as above with darkened or lightened colors and specific descriptions of each area. This person is different from person one. For example, they are unable to speak due to motor problems but picks up social cues very well, is very interested in people, tends to get fixated when stressed, finds it difficult to adjust to new locations, feels like mild touches burn like fire, and certain sounds completely incapacitate the person, flaps arms and hums or grunts, and their body seems to have a mind of its own, and are often mistaken for having intellectual disability.

Person Three

Same image as above with darkened or lightened colors and specific descriptions of each area. This person is different from Person 1 and 2 because they don't notice others when they are upset, doesn't pick up on social etiquette, dislikes being redirected from a task, learns best when moving, has low sensitivity to sensory input, likes loud noises, may hit themselves when stressed or understimulated, like to bounce and jump, and are somewhat hyperactive but strong and fit and can perform challenging physical tasks with ease.

As you can see, all three of these hypo­thet­ical autis­tics show classic signs of autism, and yet they all seem very dif­ferent from one another.

Which one is the “most” autistic?

Person One would prob­ably be described as “aspie” or “high-functioning,” even though their monotropic mindset might cause exec­u­tive func­tion prob­lems and make it hard to live and work inde­pen­dently.

Person Two is the type of person who is often described as “severely autistic” since they cannot speak and do not appear to under­stand what goes on around them. However, people like Carly Fleischmann and Ido Kedar have taught us that in fact they are very socially aware and under­stand prag­matic speech quite well.

Carly’s inter­view style in her Youtube show Speechless, for example, is extremely witty and flir­ta­tious in a way that many an “aspie” would be unable to imi­tate.

If the only thing stop­ping this person from being witty, social, and viva­cious is a motor-control problem, then are they truly “more” autistic than Person One?

Person Three might be able to be inde­pen­dent in adult­hood if given the stim­u­la­tion and accom­mo­da­tions they require in order to feel com­fort­able and be able to learn. But they might be held back through child­hood as par­ents and teachers try to force them to sit still and be quiet and learn in con­ven­tional ways, which might result in increas­ingly worse episodes of self-harm.

All three of these people are dis­abled in some way.

People who can speak aloud and have rea­son­able con­trol over their motor pro­cessing are often called “high-functioning,” and yet these autis­tics often struggle with employ­ment, rela­tion­ships, and exec­u­tive func­tion.

My doctor recently referred to my autism is “mild.” I gently pointed to my psy­chol­o­gist’s report which stated that my exec­u­tive dys­func­tion as being greater than 99th per­centile.

“That means I am less func­tional than 99% of people. Does that seem mild to you?” I asked her.

But, you see, I can speak, and I can look people in the eyes, so they see my autism as “mild.” My autism affects those around me mildly but my autism does affect me severely.

There is no ques­tion that those who suffer from severe neu­ro­motor dif­fi­cul­ties are extremely dis­abled, and I am not in any way com­paring myself to them.

In fact, I am specif­i­cally asking people to stop com­paring me to them. It does them a dis­ser­vice to assume that they have what I have, only worse.

It is this assump­tion that dehu­man­izes people like Ido Kedar and Carly Fleischmann. It is this assump­tion that leads to them and many like them being treated as unthinking, unfeeling, and unhearing. It is this assump­tion that drives them to beat their heads against the wall in frus­tra­tion.

If they have what I have, but worse, then they must be so very autistic that they can’t func­tion at all. They must have worse inter­per­sonal skills, worse infor­ma­tion pro­cessing, worse social aware­ness.

But that isn’t true at all.

Not only was my mind fully present and under­standing every­thing, but I read flu­ently. I thought of retorts, jokes and com­ments all day long in my head. Only no one else knew.

So, I was talked to like a tod­dler, not given a real edu­ca­tion, and kept bored and sad.

‑Ido Kedar, Vista del Mar Autism Conference

Don’t do it.

Don’t assume that an autistic person is so very autistic that they can’t even hear or under­stand you. Don’t assume that they cannot read just because they cannot use the toilet. Don’t assume that I am not dis­abled just because I can look you in the eyes and chat with you about the weather.

We have uneven skill sets.

Temple Grandin is unable to read people, thinks visu­ally, speaks, and needs no 1:1 sup­port to get on with her life. I am her oppo­site. I have great insight into people, think in words, can’t speak to save my life, and need 1:1 help.

-Ido Kedar, “Spectrum or Different?” May 2016

Ido Kedar does not have a more severe ver­sion of Temple Grandin’s autism or my own. His skill set is totally dif­ferent.

My neu­ro­motor dif­fi­cul­ties are lim­ited to burning myself while cooking dinner, or stum­bling and falling on a walk. Ido Kedar’s neu­ro­motor dif­fi­cul­ties, on the other hand, mean that his body often walks itself right out of the room without his per­mis­sion.

Yet Ido Kedar could prob­ably blow my prag­matic lan­guage skills out of the water.

Does that mean we have nothing in common?

No, based on what he has written, I can see that we actu­ally have many things in common.

As autistic people, we both know how it feels to lose one­self in a good stim, how it feels to forget to look at some­one’s eyes, and how it feels to need prompting to start a task. We both struggle with anx­iety and wonder how it feels to be the kind of person who moves through life effort­lessly.

We both span the spec­trum in one way or another.

But beyond those things, our sit­u­a­tions are dif­ferent and our needs are dif­ferent.

What people like Ido Kedar need is an occu­pa­tional ther­a­pist and maybe phys­io­ther­a­pist to help them get con­trol of their body move­ments. They need someone to help them develop skill with a letter board and an iPad so they can finally express their thoughts and feel­ings.

Instead, they are often infan­tilized, insti­tu­tion­al­ized, or spend years being forced to work on their ABC’s when they would love to get their hands on a sci­ence text­book.

I, on the other hand, have always been rec­og­nized as being intel­li­gent. Instead, I struggle to have my dif­fi­cul­ties be rec­og­nized. What I need is someone to sup­port me– to cook, to clean, to orga­nize– to help me recover when tasks have gotten larger and more com­pli­cated than I can process.  Ido Kedar longs for inde­pen­dence while I long for someone to depend on.

The system fails both of us, but in very dif­ferent ways.

So please stop assuming that one kind of autism is “more autistic” than other kinds of autism.

Red isn’t “more spec­trum” than green or blue. Apples aren’t “more fruit” than oranges. That’s not how it works.

The vis­i­bility of an autism trait doesn’t nec­es­sarily pre­dict what that person can and cannot do or what sup­ports they need most.

I shouldn’t be pro­cessing human speech, according to some. I shouldn’t be writing my thoughts. I shouldn’t even have thoughts. Well, I say, go listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and imagine writing it deaf and try to be a little humble about the brain’s unknown capac­i­ties.

Ido Kedar — March 2019, http://www.idoinautismland.com

Don’t assume that a non-speaking autistic who doesn’t react to your pres­ence in the room is unaware of the con­ver­sa­tion.

Don’t assume that someone is not really autistic just because they make eye con­tact with you and can chat about the weather.

Don’t assume that a fluently-talkative autistic person is capable of pro­cessing what you have just said to them.

Don’t assume any­thing about an autistic person.

For sev­enty years (at least), people have been making assump­tions about autistic people based on out­ward behav­iour.  Even the diag­nostic cri­teria for autism is based on what is easily observ­able by an onlooker. They think that the stranger we act, the “more autistic” we are.

We are asking you to stop.

Ask us what we can and cannot do.

Even if it doesn’t look as though we can under­stand.

197 Comments

  1. Neat expla­na­tion of the spec­trum! However, the com­par­ison to vis­ible light isn’t *com­pletely* right. Yes, red is a dif­ferent colour than blue, but only because we observe and define them as such. They are actu­ally just “more/less spec­trum”, or rather, have longer or shorter wave­lengths.

    And as for being “not autistic, but on the spec­trum” – darn, I’m guilty of that! Which makes me wonder, since the three exam­ples had con­sid­er­able dif­fi­cul­ties with sev­eral skills while being pro­fi­cient in others – what if you’re affected in most or all of the areas, but only slightly? Wouldn’t that be the “mild” kind? As opposed to having severe dif­fi­cul­ties with every ability on that spec­trum being much more dis­abling in gen­eral.

  2. Thank you this was so helpful to read and learn!!!

  3. That’s the best expla­na­tion I’ve ever seen. This should be required reading.

  4. I am 81 years old and have never “fit in”. The more that I am learning about autism the better I can under­stand some of my traits that my teachers, instruc­tors, and super­vi­sors found to be quite vexing. From some of my ear­liest days my par­ents and older sib­lings depended on my obser­va­tions and memory for locating mis­laid tools and other objects. I am told that at age 2 years I went out­side in the snow to find a hammer that had been left out the pre­vious day and was suc­cessful.
    My hand­writing ability was a problem first used to shame me in second grade and my responce was to never give that teacher another page with my marks on it.

    Ross

  5. Wow! This is one of the best arti­cles I have seen in this sub­ject. Thank you so much! It has helped me under­stand my chil­dren so much better!


  6. This was the most insightful article I have ever read and I thank you C.L Lynch for writing it. It spoke to me so deeply and I feel more empow­ered after having read it. Thank you.

  7. This is a great article! Thank you

  8. Great expla­na­tion! I like to think of autistic traits as being a mosaic rather than a spec­trum. Each person has dif­ferent abil­i­ties and chal­lenges that are inde­pen­dent from each other.


  9. Who is “neuro typ­ical”? It seems that everyone I know has at least one of those dif­fer­ences. Brain dif­fer­ences seem to be ubiq­ui­tous; every brain works dif­fer­ently from every other brain. It is not rea­son­able to say “no one is a little autistic”. My obser­va­tions seem to tell me that it is more likely that everyone is “a little autistic”, that autism is, indeed, a spec­trum that includes most humans at some point. I realize that might seem out­ra­geous to you; if my brain func­tions dif­fer­ently from yours, which one of us is “neu­rotyp­ical”? I have no doubt that my brain func­tions dif­fer­ently; dif­fer­ently from anyone else in the world. As does each other per­son’s brain. Every brain is neu­ro­di­verse. This is as much as my addled brain can manage right now!

    1. I have not been diag­nosed as having any atyp­ical neu­ro­log­ical pat­terns . BUT I am sev­erly dys­graphic. Even with my best efforts i blend cur­sive and printing upper and lower case and mis­placed spacing. While I was in the Air Force my sar­gents would find other duties for me when we were to have a parade because I was never able to master marching. I have never been able to learn any manner of dancing. I am how­ever an excel­lent craftsman and am skilled in sev­eral trades. For many years I con­sid­ered myself to be semi­lit­erate because I could read but I couldn’t write. That changed when a won­derful woman and wife of a dyslexic hus­band and mother of three dyslexic chil­dren told me that I can write my thoughts and someone else can make them leg­ible. She told me that my words were more impor­tant than my pen­man­ship. The com­puter has been a won­der­fully lib­er­ating tool.

    2. Blindness is also a spec­trum; I’m so near­sighted I can hardly see ten feet ahead of me without my glasses, and age is killing my near­sight­ed­ness, too. Would you call me blind?

      You’re missing the point of the article. Autism isn’t about a single deviant trait. It’s about many traits, diver­gent enough to make per­forming in a normal life extremely dif­fi­cult to impos­sible. Take a look at this bell curve: https://study.com/cimages/videopreview/videopreview-full/8o9chhe0qj.jpg. Autism would include people below ‑30 and above +30; the closer to the center, the more neu­rotyp­ical you are.

      Individual traits can be treated indi­vid­u­ally. A set of strong, col­lec­tive traits can be dis­abling. Suggesting that “every­body is a little autistic” is as dis­re­spectful to true people with Autism the same way that claiming my bad but easily cor­rectable vision makes me blind. And it keeps society from under­standing the full extent of the autism problem, par­tic­u­larly for those on the high end of the scale.



  10. This is really helpful to me. I think I’m pretty well edu­cated on the sub­ject of autism, but this has cleared up a load of stuff that I hadn’t really grasped. Thank you.


  11. Thank you for this post. I will add it to my list of ways to explain autism. I also found a quote recently that I added to it, it goes like this, “[So-called] Mild autism doesn’t mean one expe­ri­ences autism mildly … It means YOU expe­ri­ence their autism mildy.” – Adam Walton



  12. replying to Frickthoughts regarding everyone being “a little bit autistic“:

    I under­stand what you’re saying, and I think the dif­fer­ence is going to be in the realm of clin­ical sig­nif­i­cance. Someone who is not good at dancing doesn’t nec­es­sarily have a clin­ical diag­nosis of poor motor con­trol. My ADHD and related exec­u­tive func­tion deficits are con­sid­ered severe in some aspects, despite my having made high grades in school, because they sig­nif­i­cantly impact my day to day func­tion. I have lost friends, nearly lost jobs, and lost money (for many dif­ferent rea­sons), not to men­tion actu­ally being lost in many dif­ferent cities, all having to do with my exec­u­tive func­tioning impair­ments. Secondary issues such as anx­iety and depres­sion have ensued. I am for­tu­nate to have had the intel­lect and family sup­port to earn a col­lege degree, but real life is harder. If someone else said that they think they have a little ADHD because they occa­sion­ally forget where they put their glasses, my response would be “Not clin­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant!” And if someone indeed has a tiny bit of all of the traits listed on the spec­trum above, that does not nec­es­sarily mean that they cross into the realm of clin­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant autism.

  13. There comes a point where we are faced with what is clin­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant and what is per­son­ally sig­nif­i­cant. When my dancing ability is such that my partner stops in the middle of a number and chides me for not being able to dance it has become per­son­ally very sig­nif­i­cant.

  14. I love what trying to get across. But if only you knew what a spec­trum was. You need a dif­ferent analogy alto­gether because the elec­tro­mag­netic spec­trum (of which light is a part) is based on wave­length. It is quan­ti­ta­tive. And it IS a scale. I think, sticking with the colour theme it would be a better analogy to say ‘Autistic Palette’. People are cor­rectly inter­preting spec­trum, but it has been incor­rectly asso­ci­ated with autism.

  15. Very good article. Hopefully pieces like will start to get the mes­sage through that autistic people have wildely dif­ferent lived expe­ri­ences as do their fam­i­lies. I for one am sick and tired of the homogo­ni­sa­tion that seems to occur not just from out­side the autism com­mu­nity by Joe Public, but also from within. We have dif­ferent camps within the com­mu­nity that claim to speak for and under­stand the whole sepc­trum. As the author rightly points out there are some common themes con­necting all autis­tics but the lived expe­ri­ences of one part of the spec­trum are vastly dif­ferent to other parts. Different issues, dif­ferent prob­lems, dif­ferent skills, dif­ferent lives and yet we often see one part speaking for and making assump­tions about the other. This occurs both within the com­mu­nity and from out­side. Let’s treat all people on the spec­trum as indi­vid­uals and respect their lived expe­ri­ences and when they unable to express those exe­priences directly lets respect the lived expe­ri­ences of those who love them and advo­cate for them.

  16. Thank you so much for writing this. My daughter was diag­nosed with autism 5 years ago and after reading this, for the first time I feel like I under­stand wtf that means.

  17. So, This is an inter­esting way of viewing the “Spectrum”. I am a mother of five chil­dren four are on the spec­trum my oldest is 30 my youngest is 6. I would have described what this Author did, they way she did, right up until the time I had a very low func­tioning Autistic child who is trag­i­cally non verbal. I see the spec­trum now with 30 years worth of expe­ri­ence as a Little Quirky, Definitely Autistic and or Tragically Autistic. If you have not had chil­dren who func­tion zero ability to com­mu­ni­cate dont think for a second I am going to fell bad for you cog­ni­tive func­tioning when your a pub­lished Author and can sup­port your­self and make your needs known. Tragic Autism exists any­time you wanna see what that looks like come on over for a visit and after 72 hours you will believe what I do that Autism is a little quirky, def­i­nitely autistic and trag­i­cally autistic.

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