How Many Types of Autism Are There?

Demystify the many types of autism, their characteristics, and intervention therapies for your child's ASD.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
May 14, 2024
Published On
May 14, 2024

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a group of neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. Understanding these disorders involves discerning their evolution and the transition from DSM-IV to DSM-V diagnostic criteria.

Evolution of Autism Diagnosis

The understanding and diagnosis of autism have evolved significantly over time. In the DSM-III, published in 1980, it was first recognized that autism had a biological basis impacting the brain and development, moving beyond the earlier belief that it was caused by cold parenting.

A significant step forward came with the DSM-IV, which was the first edition of the DSM to describe autism as a spectrum. This edition listed five distinct conditions as part of this spectrum, including Asperger’s disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and Rett’s syndrome. This categorization helped create a spectrum of mild and more severe disorders and symptoms.

DSM-IV to DSM-V Transition

Transitioning from DSM-IV to DSM-V led to a significant shift in the diagnosis of autism. The DSM-V introduced "Autism Spectrum Disorder" (ASD), defined by "persistent impairment in reciprocal social communication and social interaction" and "restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior" appearing in early childhood. This aligns more closely with the modern understanding of autism.

This means that 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.

The shift has been essential in acknowledging the variety of conditions and symptoms that individuals with autism can experience. This has led to a more holistic approach to treatment by clinicians and professionals specializing in behavioral therapies, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) [1].

In understanding the different types of autism, it's important to remember that every individual's experience with ASD is unique. The spectrum nature of these disorders means that individuals can exhibit a wide range of symptoms and abilities. This knowledge can empower parents, caregivers, and professionals to ensure those with ASD receive the support and interventions that best meet their individual needs.

Types of Autism

When asking "how many types of autism are there?", the answer is complex. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning it affects individuals differently and can range from mild to severe. There are five major types of autism which include Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Kanner’s syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified [3]. For the purposes of this article, we will discuss four of these types.

Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger's syndrome is now classified as level 1 autism spectrum disorder by the DSM-5 diagnostic manual. Individuals with Asperger's tend to have above-average intelligence, strong verbal skills but face challenges with social communication. This can manifest as difficulty understanding social cues, struggles with empathy and forming meaningful relationships, and sometimes rigid or obsessive behavior patterns [3].

Rett Syndrome

Rett syndrome is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that predominantly affects girls but can also be diagnosed in boys. This disorder presents challenges that affect almost every aspect of a child's life. These may include problems with cognitive, sensory, emotional, and motor skills development. Some children with Rett syndrome may also experience seizures or have unusual hand movements.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) is another neurodevelopmental disorder defined by delayed onset of developmental problems. These can include challenges in language, motor skills, and social function. CDD is more commonly diagnosed in boys than girls. Children with CDD often develop typically until age 2, after which they may lose many of the skills they've developed, in areas such as language and social engagement [3].


Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) is a type of mild autism. Children with PDD-NOS can present a range of symptoms, including challenges in social and language development. They may have difficulty interacting with others and understanding social norms. Their symptoms can be more subtle and may not fit neatly into other categories of autism, hence the term "not otherwise specified".

Understanding these types of autism can help parents and caregivers tailor their approach to the unique needs of their child. It's important to remember that each child is unique, and the types of autism are merely classifications that help clinicians and researchers understand patterns. Each child will have their own individual strengths and challenges.

Characteristics of Autism Types

The characteristics of autism spectrum disorders can vary widely, but each type of autism has unique traits that distinguish it from the others. Here, we will explore the characteristics of four types of autism: Asperger's syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and PDD-NOS.

Asperger's: High Intelligence

Asperger's syndrome, now classified as level 1 autism spectrum disorder by the DSM-5 diagnostic manual, is characterized by above-average intelligence and strong verbal skills. Despite these strengths, individuals with Asperger's often face challenges in social communication. They may have difficulty interpreting non-verbal cues and understanding social norms, which can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships.

Rett Syndrome: Neurodevelopmental Challenges

Rett syndrome is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that primarily affects girls, though it can also be diagnosed in boys. The disorder presents challenges affecting various aspects of a child's life, including cognitive and physical development. Symptoms often include loss of purposeful hand skills, slowed growth, and difficulties with coordination. A key feature of Rett syndrome is the development of repetitive hand movements, such as hand-wringing.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder: Regression

Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by a sudden regression in developmental progress. Children with CDD show delayed onset of developmental problems in language, motor skills, or social function. This regression, which often occurs suddenly after age three and up to age 10, can be quite dramatic, leading to significant loss of previously acquired skills.

PDD-NOS: Mild Symptoms

Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) is considered a milder type of autism. It presents challenges in social and language development, with symptoms ranging from delays in language development to deficits in interaction. Children with PDD-NOS may not meet the full criteria for autism but still experience significant difficulties in social communication and interaction [3].

Understanding the unique characteristics of each type of autism can help parents and professionals provide the most effective support and interventions. By recognizing these differences, we can better appreciate the diversity within the autism spectrum and meet the needs of each individual with autism.

Therapies for Autism

When it comes to managing autism spectrum disorders, various therapies are available that cater to the diverse needs of individuals with autism, including Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech therapy, and occupational therapy.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a widely recognized and evidence-based therapy for individuals with autism. ABA focuses on understanding and modifying behaviors through systematic analysis and reinforcement techniques. This therapy aims to encourage desired behaviors and reduce unwanted ones, helping children with autism understand the connection between behaviors and consequences. This method can improve a child's life skills, intellectual abilities, and social skills.

Speech Therapy

Another essential therapy for individuals with autism is speech therapy, also known as speech-language pathology. Communication difficulties are common among individuals with autism, and speech therapy aims to improve their language and communication skills. This therapy can be especially beneficial in enhancing verbal, nonverbal, and social communication skills, thus, helping individuals with autism interact more effectively with others [4].

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy plays a vital role in supporting individuals with autism in developing and improving their daily living skills and independence. Occupational therapists work with individuals to enhance their ability to perform everyday activities, such as self-care tasks, fine motor skills, sensory processing, and social interaction skills. By focusing on these areas, occupational therapy can greatly improve the quality of life of individuals with autism [4].

In conclusion, while there are many types of autism, there are also a variety of therapies available to cater to the unique needs of each individual. It's important to remember that what works for one person may not work for another. Each therapy plan should be personalized and based on the individual's specific symptoms, needs, and goals.

Early Intervention for Autism

Early intervention is crucial in managing Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). It can help children develop essential skills and mitigate the symptoms of ASD. This section will explore three early intervention approaches: Behavior Therapy, Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), and Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT).

Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy is a commonly used ASD treatment that aims to encourage desired behaviors and reduce unwanted behaviors. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a key approach within behavior therapy, which helps children with ASD understand the connection between behaviors and consequences. ABA-based therapy can enhance a child's life skills, intellectual abilities, and social skills.

ABA is a widely recognized and evidence-based therapy for individuals with autism. It focuses on understanding and modifying behaviors through systematic analysis and reinforcement techniques.

Early Start Denver Model (ESDM)

The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) is an approach most effective for 12- to 48-month-olds. It incorporates the practices of ABA but places a strong emphasis on creating positive social interactions. ESDM enhances communication and cognitive skills through natural play and joint activities with therapists and parents. This approach has been shown to improve language and communication skills as well as adaptive behavior.

Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)

Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is a play-based approach that focuses on broader areas of development, such as motivation, self-management, response to multiple cues, and initiation of social interactions. By targeting these pivotal areas, PRT helps children make broad improvements with social skills and communication. PRT has been effective at building communication skills in children and can be used in both one-on-one and group sessions.

The choice of therapy can depend on the specific needs and characteristics of the child. It is important to consult with healthcare professionals to determine the most appropriate intervention strategies. By understanding the various types of early intervention approaches, parents can be proactive in seeking the most effective treatments for their children.