Autism Definitions

The term Autistic Spectrum Disorder is used because there is great variation in the condition from person to person depending on the severity and combination of each area of impairment.

Classic Autism

In ‘classic autism’, impairments in the social and communication areas are severe and sustained. The person is often anxious, has poor attention and motivation, responds unusually to many different stimuli and is observed as being ‘different’ from other people. Speech is limited or largely absent and there is likely to be a degree of intellectual impairment.

There is a strong reliance on routine and the person can have a number of ritualistic behaviours. Classic autism is also sometimes referred to as Kanner’s autism.

People with classic autism often exhibit a range of difficulties including:
  • Severe anxiety
  • Fears and phobias
  • Challenging behaviour
  • Self injurious behaviour
  • Interpersonal violence
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviour
  • Extreme passivity
  • Repetitive speech
  • Expression of needs and nothing else.

Asperger’s Syndrome

What distinguishes Asperger syndrome from classic autism is the severity of the symptoms and the absence of language delays. People with Asperger syndrome may only be mildly affected and frequently have good language and cognitive skills. To the untrained observer, a person with Asperger syndrome may just seem like a normal person behaving differently.

People with autism are frequently seen as aloof and uninterested in others. This is not the case with Asperger syndrome. Individuals with Asperger syndrome usually want to fit in and interact with others; they simply don’t know how to do it. They may be socially awkward, not understanding of conventional social rules or show a lack of empathy. They may have limited eye contact, seem to be unengaged in a conversation and not understand the use of gestures.

Interests in a particular subject may border on the obsessive. People with Asperger syndrome frequently like to collect categories of things such as comics, car parts or electronic gadgets. While they may have good rote memory skills, they invariably have difficulty with abstract concepts.

One of the major differences between Asperger syndrome and classic autism is that, by definition, there is no speech delay in Asperger syndrome. In fact, people with Asperger syndrome frequently have good language skills; they simply use language in different ways. Speech patterns may be unusual, lack inflection or have a rhythmic nature, or it may be formal, but too loud or high pitched. People with Asperger syndrome may not understand the subtleties of language, such as irony and humour, or they may not understand the give-and-take nature of a conversation.

Another distinction between Asperger syndrome and classic autism relates to cognitive ability. While the majority of individuals with classic autism experience intellectual impairment, by definition a person with Asperger syndrome cannot possess a ‘clinically significant’ cognitive delay and most possess average to above average intelligence.

Also see our Top Ten Facts About Autism.