Different Forms of Autism: From High-Functioning to Non-Verbal

Explore the different forms of autism, from high-functioning to non-verbal, and understand their unique traits.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
May 24, 2024
Published On
May 24, 2024

Understanding Autism Spectrum

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) encompasses a wide range of neurological and developmental differences, presenting in various forms and severities. This section aims to provide an overview of the definition and characteristics of ASD, along with an examination of the variability within the spectrum.

Definition and Characteristics

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Individuals with ASD often have difficulties with social communication and interaction, and display restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. These individuals may also have unique ways of learning, moving, or paying attention.

Challenges in social communication and interaction can present in various ways. For example, individuals with ASD might struggle with understanding nonverbal cues or maintaining conversations. In terms of restricted or repetitive behaviors and interests, individuals might exhibit echolalia (repeating words or phrases) or perform repetitive movements, which sets ASD apart from conditions characterized solely by problems with social communication and interaction.

In addition to these core symptoms, most people with ASD have other related characteristics, which might include intellectual disabilities, attention problems, and difficulties with motor coordination. These additional characteristics further contribute to the complexity and diversity of ASD profiles.

Variability within the Spectrum

The term "spectrum" in Autism Spectrum Disorder represents the wide variability in symptoms and severity of ASD. Not all individuals with ASD will exhibit all, or even any, of the behaviors listed as characteristic examples of ASD. This further emphasizes the high level of variability within the autism spectrum.

The spectrum nature of ASD means that while one individual may have severe symptoms that impair their daily functioning, another might have mild symptoms and lead an independent life, with little to no assistance required. This variability can sometimes make ASD challenging to diagnose and underscores the need for individualized intervention strategies tailored to the unique needs and strengths of each person with ASD.

Understanding the different forms of autism and the variability within the spectrum is a critical step towards promoting understanding, acceptance, and support for individuals with ASD and their families. By recognizing the unique constellation of characteristics that define each individual with ASD, we can better adapt our approaches to communication, education, and intervention, ultimately fostering a more inclusive and empathetic society.

Types of Autism Disorders

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) encompasses a wide range of conditions, each presenting with varying degrees of symptom severity. This section will delve into three of these conditions: Asperger's Syndrome, Autistic Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Asperger's Syndrome

Originally classified as an independent disorder, Asperger's syndrome is now considered level 1 autism spectrum disorder, according to the DSM-5 diagnostic manual. People with this form of autism often display above-average intelligence and strong verbal skills, but they might struggle with social communication.

Despite the reclassification into a broader category of ASD, many people still identify with the term Asperger's Syndrome. This is largely due to the fact that it doesn't always present exactly as standard autism does, maintaining its unique characteristics in the minds of those diagnosed with it [3].

Autistic Disorder

Autistic Disorder, often referred to as "classic" autism, is typically what most people think of when they hear the term autism. This form of ASD is marked by significant challenges in social interaction, communication, and behavior. Individuals with Autistic Disorder might also display repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder - NOS

Before the publication of DSM-V, Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) was recognized as one of the three main types of autism. It served as a "catch-all" diagnosis for individuals who didn't meet the DSM-IV criteria for autism but exhibited symptoms of developmental delay and difficulties [3].

PDD-NOS is characterized by significant challenges in social interaction and communication, along with repetitive behaviors. However, these symptoms tend to be less severe than those seen in Autistic Disorder, and the onset of symptoms typically occurs later in development. Despite the changes in diagnostic criteria, PDD-NOS remains a useful term for understanding the diverse manifestations of ASD.

Understanding these different forms of autism can help individuals, families, and professionals develop more effective strategies for support and intervention. Each type of ASD has its own unique features, but all require comprehensive, tailored approaches to treatment and care.

Rarer Forms of Autism

While the term 'autism' is typically used to describe a spectrum of developmental disorders, there exist some forms of autism that are comparatively less common. Among these are Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Rett Syndrome.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) was previously considered the rarest and most severe part of the autism spectrum [4]. Children diagnosed with CDD typically develop normally until ages 2 to 4, after which they experience a rapid loss of social, language, and mental skills. In some cases, children may also develop a seizure disorder.

The prevalence of CDD is estimated to be 1.7 in 100,000 children, making it a rare occurrence. With the release of the DSM-5, CDD has been absorbed into the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) umbrella, recognizing it as a more severe form of autism.

Rett Syndrome

Rett Syndrome, while displaying behaviors similar to autism, has been removed from the autism spectrum disorders due to its known genetic cause [4]. This rare neurodevelopmental disorder primarily affects girls, though it can also be diagnosed in boys, and impacts various aspects of a child's life from infancy.

Almost all cases of Rett Syndrome occur due to a mutation of the MECP2 gene, with mutations in other genes also linked to the syndrome. Notably, less than 1% of recorded cases are inherited [3].

These rarer forms of autism, though lesser-known, contribute to the diversity of the autism spectrum. They serve as a reminder that despite common characteristics, the different forms of autism present unique challenges and require individualized care and treatment plans.

Treatment Approaches for Autism

When it comes to managing different forms of autism, several treatment approaches are applied depending on individual needs. These approaches aim to enhance the individual's ability to function and navigate the world around them. The treatments often involve behavioral therapies, developmental approaches, and speech and language therapy.

Behavioral Therapies

One of the most utilized treatment methods for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is behavioral therapy. A widely accepted behavioral approach is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA encourages desired behaviors, discourages undesired behaviors, and tracks progress. This method is effective in helping individuals with ASD improve their social interactions, communication, and learning skills [5].

ABA therapy may include:

  • Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
  • Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI)
  • Pivotal Response Training (PRT)
  • Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI)

Each behavioral therapy option is tailored to meet the unique needs of each individual with autism, ensuring optimal results and progress.

Developmental Approaches

Developmental approaches are another effective treatment method for ASD. These approaches focus on improving specific developmental skills like language skills or physical skills. These methods are often combined with behavioral approaches to provide a comprehensive treatment plan for individuals with ASD.

Types of developmental approaches include:

  • Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based Approach (DIR)
  • Floortime
  • Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)
  • The Denver Model

Each developmental approach aims to enhance the overall developmental progress of the individual with autism, focusing on their unique deficits and strengths.

Speech and Language Therapy

Speech and Language Therapy is a common developmental therapy that helps improve speech, language understanding, and communication for individuals with ASD. The therapy may involve verbal communication techniques or alternative methods such as signs, gestures, pictures, or electronic communication devices [5].

Speech and Language Therapy may include:

  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • Sign Language
  • Social Stories
  • Video Modeling

These techniques aim to enhance the individual's ability to express themselves and understand others effectively, thereby improving their social interactions.

The choice of treatment approach for autism depends on the unique needs and characteristics of the individual. A combination of these therapies often provides the best outcome, helping individuals with autism to lead fulfilling and productive lives.

Supporting Individuals with Autism

Helping individuals with autism involves a multi-faceted approach that is often tailored to their unique needs. The goal is to enhance their ability to function independently and improve their quality of life. Key strategies include occupational therapy and pharmacological approaches.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapy (OT) plays a significant role in supporting individuals with different forms of autism. This therapy focuses on improving specific developmental skills, such as language skills or physical skills, and is often combined with behavioral approaches in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) [5].

In addition, OT teaches skills for independent living, such as dressing, eating, bathing, and social interactions, to promote maximum independence. A specific example of a developmental approach used in OT is the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM). Based on Applied Behavior Analysis principles, ESDM is used with children aged 12-48 months.

The ultimate goal of occupational therapy is to enhance an individual's ability to participate in everyday activities, improve their functional independence, and overall quality of life.

Pharmacological Approaches

Pharmacological approaches do not target the core symptoms of ASD but may address co-occurring symptoms or conditions like anxiety, depression, high energy levels, self-harming behaviors, seizures, sleep problems, or gastrointestinal issues.

It is important to consult with a doctor experienced in treating individuals with ASD when considering medication. As every individual with ASD is unique, the medication regimen should be personalized to meet their specific needs and manage their particular symptoms [5].

By combining these approaches and tailoring the treatment plan to the individual's needs, we can support individuals with autism in leading more independent and fulfilling lives. It's crucial to remember that every individual with autism is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Therefore, treatment plans should be flexible and adaptable, always keeping the individual's best interests at heart.

Research and Statistics

Delving into the research and statistics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can provide valuable insights into its prevalence, treatment trends, and research priorities. These factors play a crucial role in understanding the different forms of autism and how they impact individuals and communities.

Prevalence in the United States

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of ASD in the United States has been on the rise. As of March 26, 2021, it is reported that among 8-year-old children, one in 54 are autistic, an increase from the one in 59 prevalence reported in previous estimates Medical News Today.

In 2020, the overall prevalence of ASD among children aged 8 years in the United States ranged from 23.1 per 1,000 in Maryland to 44.9 per 1,000 in California. The overall prevalence was 27.6 per 1,000 children, with boys being 3.8 times more likely to have ASD than girls.

Treatment Trends and Outcomes

The treatment trends and outcomes for autism spectrum disorder are diverse, given the wide range of symptoms and severity associated with the disorder. However, a common factor among all forms of autism is the need for early intervention and ongoing support to improve the quality of life and functional outcomes for individuals with ASD.

Research Priorities and Funding

Research priorities and funding for autism are crucial for improving our understanding of the disorder and developing effective interventions and supports. A study found that the autism community believes that future priorities for autism research should focus on areas that make a difference to people’s day-to-day lives, such as effective services and supports, improving life skills, understanding how autistic people think and learn, and the place of autistic people in society NCBI.

Unfortunately, the majority of funded autism research in the UK is focused on ‘basic science’ areas such as genetics and cognitive systems, and relatively little research is being done on improving the immediate circumstances in which autistic people find themselves and understanding and promoting family functioning and services NCBI.

In comparison, the United States has a more evenly distributed research funding across different research areas, including diagnosis, underlying biology, genetic and environmental risk factors, treatments and interventions, services and implementation science, and lifespan services and supports NCBI. This broad range of research areas reflects the complexity of autism and the diverse needs of individuals with ASD.

These research and statistics are crucial in providing a holistic view of autism, shedding light on the prevalence, treatment trends, and research priorities. Such insights can guide efforts in developing effective interventions, support systems, and policies to improve the lives of individuals with the different forms of autism.


[2]: https://www.integrityinc.org/what-are-the-5-types-of-autism/

[3]: https://spectrumofhope.com/blog/5-different-types-of-autism/

[4]: https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/autism-spectrum-disorders