In this glossary, we’re obviously referring to the Spectrum in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The representation above shows an infinite continuum, reminiscent of the colour spectrum that we may last have seen in Art at school.

We’re encouraged, by the more enlightened, to imagine the autistic spectrum as a colour wheel of neurodivergence, with different autistic people at different points on that wheel, these positions changing throughout life and from day-to-day. Indeed, a quick Google image search for ‘autistic spectrum’ will bring up a sea of vibrant rainbow circles at the top. It’s all sounding very positive and flexible at this point, right?

The infinite continuum is, however, only one definition of the word spectrum. A spectrum can also have breadth, with widely diverging poles at either end; the less extremes being somewhere in between. Think of the political spectrum as an example – when we hear the phrase parties across the political spectrum we understand that this includes left and right wing parties and some towards the centre. This is how many neurotypical people view the autism spectrum – it’s what leads to that tired old phrase: “oh we’re ALL a little bit on the spectrum!”, in response to us sharing our newly discovered identity with them. Those people are visualising a linear spectrum – a straight line – with differing degrees of autismness (not a word) along it – perhaps something like the graph below.

This misconception isn’t really the fault of the general public, though I do think many who make that comment think of, maybe their love of routine and mentally place themselves on the little white bar – just a touch spectrumy (also not a word). Someone who maybe has social anxiety and a large collection of Star Wars memorabilia might imagine themselves on the blue bar – a bit more on the spectrum than their routined friend. If those people then witness a whopping great meltdown by one of their autistic colleagues, they would no doubt consider them to be right up there in the orange bar, “really autistic”.  Another autistic person that they see on television, who may be non-speaking, they’d describe as being in the red column, “heavily autistic”, and then they probably imagine those with co-occurring learning disabilities would be the “as autistic as you can get”. This sounds daft, I know. But I really think that’s how non-autistics think the autism spectrum operates.

But where has this reputation come from? Well, in part I suspect it’s because many individual autistic traits are also experienced by neurotypicals – not all of them, not most of them, and not necessarily consistently, but enough to latch on to.

Undoubtedly, largely responsible for this idea of degrees of autism is the out-dated diagnostic manual, DSM-IV, and its plethora of separate, very closely related, diagnoses around autism. The newer manual, DSM-5, combined three of these distinct diagnostic categories and created the term Autism Spectrum Disorder. These were previously:

  • Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) – historically considered ‘high functioning’ and the ‘mildest’ form of autism
  • Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) – is vaguely described as indicating that there is evidence of autism but not necessarily enough traits to class as autism proper (ridiculous, I know!).
  • Autistic Disorder – this was considered the most severe of the three. It was also termed ‘low functioning’.

The powers that be decided to combine all of three of these and create the new label ASD, supposedly to make identifying autistic people easier. But this historical leaguing of autistic people has stuck, and not just for the uneducated public; many medical professionals that were in practise during that period continue to use high and low functioning labels, to our detriment.

I would like to think that the Diagnostic Gods developed The Spectrum to reflect the fact that there is no one set of behaviours and traits that dictates we are autistic. It probably felt respectful of our individuality, our uniqueness. Ah no, that can’t be it, because they added the word Disorder on the end, so respect wasn’t ever the intention.

If you think I’m being overly cynical, about the pervasiveness of this misinterpretation, here’s Cambridge dictionary’s example of how to use the word spectrum in a sentence: He is some way along the autistic spectrum”. I rest my case.