Visualizing the Autism Spectrum

What do you envision when someone says, “autism spectrum”?

Like most people, you probably imagine a line going from mild to severe, or good to bad, or something similar. At one end would be neurotypical (non-ASD), at the other severely autistic.

The problem is that’s not how the spectrum works. I learned this when C was diagnosed and I, like any parent, wanted to find out where he was on this so-called spectrum. Was he in the middle? Toward the more severe end?

It wasn’t that the experts couldn’t or wouldn’t answer me. It’s that I was asking the wrong question. I wanted to be able to plot his autism on a linear scale, but the autism spectrum isn’t linear at all.

This is not how the spectrum looks.

So I did my own research to figure out what C’s autism looked like. I felt like visualizing it would help me understand where his strengths and weaknesses were. However, several trips to Google left me more befuddled than ever: there wasn’t any agreed-upon visualization of the autism spectrum.

Since I earn my living trying to make complex things simple and easy to understand, I decided to create my own autism spectrum diagram, something that would provide a more accurate representation of the condition.

I based my visualization on the fact that there are three generally accepted axes for ASD: social, communication, and behavioral.

On each axis, the range goes from typical — what we’d expect to see in a non-ASD individual — to severely impaired. Here are the generally accepted criteria for each axis:

Social Impairment

Problematic nonverbal behaviors; failure to interact appropriately with peers or make friends; playing alone while other children the same age approach each other, cooperate and imitate each other; problems sharing interests, achievements or pleasure with others; problems responding to social and emotional cues.

Communication Impairment

Delay or absence of speech with no attempt to compensate by using gestures; an inability to carry on a conversation even when speech is adequate; stereotyped and repetitive language; lack of imaginative play.

Repetitive Behaviors or Interests

An interest of intense or abnormal focus; rigid adherence to a routine or ritual that has no purpose; repetition of particular movements or gestures; persistent preoccupation with parts of objects.

My Visualization of the Spectrum

My diagram helps visually distinguish the three primary forms of ASD — Autistic DisorderAsperger Synrdome, and PDD-NOS — from one another. (C has Autistic Disorder.)

Autistic Disorder; this is a lot like my son, C. Autistic Disorder generally involves deficits or impairment along all three of the primary axes.

This graphic visualizes PDD-NOS, which is identified by more communication and social impairment than behavioral / repetitive patterns.

Asperger's Disorder is usually identified later than Autistic Disorder and PDD-NOS, because these children are highly verbal and often very intelligent at a young age. Their social and behavioral issues become more evident later on.

This graphic visualizes a less severe case of Autistic Disorder.

Plotting the level of impairment is subjective, of course, and one’s point on each axis may change over time, with therapy and other treatments. Nonetheless, what my diagram shows is that the so-called autism spectrum doesn’t result in a single point plotted on a line, but several points that create a shape, a map of each individual’s unique ASD landscape.

Of course, the diagrams above are hypothetical, not based on any particular individual. In reality, each individual would map differently based on their own levels of impairment.

What Do You Think?

My diagram is a work in progress. I’m not formally educated in ASD, obviously, but I felt this format was helpful. What do you think? Let me know.

13 Comments

  1. Love it. I commented on MyAutismTeam, too. I’m relatively new to the Autism world (my son was just diagnosed in Jan.) so I’m in the same boat of not being “formally educated in ASD” but I think this is a great concept, both for the more visually oriented people ON the spectrum and for the clueless but interested parties OFF. A simpler way to explain what the heck is going on is in such high demand/low supply in the special needs community! There will NEVER be a way to fully encompass the personality and challenges of any child (or parent for that matter) but I think this is great “here are the basics” approach. Why no one thought of it before is beyond me. Way to go!

  2. i think the ASD community (and C) are lucky to have a father like you on their side. with your intellect, talents, and love, i believe that you’ll bring something significant to the collective conscience of this matter. this graph is just the beginning… and it’s a great start!

  3. Have you done the ATEC test for ‘C’? Interestingly enough, they give you a range of where your child scores on each scale. They separate the test into four scales, Scale 1) Speech 2) Sociability 3) Sensory/Cognitive Awareness 4) Health/Physical/Behavior. I’m sure for the purposes of your diagram, you could combine scales 3 and 4 together. At any rate, the scores of this particular test popped into my head when looking at your diagrams. I might try to plot your diagram using the ranges in this test to see what happens. Thanks for the insight!

  4. I of course had always imagined some kind of arc because they used the word Spectrum and it made me think of a rainbow.
    This is not only really clear, but helps clarify PDD NOS and Aspergers and how they include spectrum behaviors, which is always confusing to explain to people

  5. You add new depth to the phrase”doing one’s best” Your best efforts are now, and always will be, an enormous
    contribution to C’s well being and development. You have my prayers always for your exploration of ways to understand and help his journey.

  6. Thank you so much for this marvelous depiction of the differences in ASDs and how they vary among people. I will (with your permission, of course) be sharing this with the students, parents and teachers I work with as a special educator and counselor.

  7. Beautiful visualization, great explanation. I am rooting for shrinking triangles for C and all of his compatriots. Keep up the good work.

  8. Brilliant. I have tinkered with a similar idea, one that is more detailed, a circle divided into wedges like a spider web. Each wedge is a particular aspect of autism, such as eye contact or hand-flapping. It looks more like a pie graph.I never got around to doing more with it, but always thought it would be a useful tool to assess progress. As the wedges got smaller, nearer the neurotypical center, you could see how the child improved over time.

    I would like to share this website with the doctors at Kennedy-Kreiger at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Md. I will be there on 3/20/12 and think they would be interested. I also have contacts at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md, and would be happy to pass this along.

    I am a parent, too, and I have had my son in research studies in both places. NIH was “Subtypes of Autism”, a three-year study of cognitive and behavioral function. KK is a double-blind placebo trial of a drug called Arbaclofen. It is supposed to help social interaction. It’s in Phase 2, meaning Phase 1 was promising enough to continue research. Google Arbaclofen and Seaside Pharmaceuticals and you can learn more.

  9. Thank you. Very insightful. I have a 10 year old daughter with PDD-NOS – fits her pretty well. Nice to see a dad’s perscpective.

  10. Well I just learned something – thanks ASD DAD! This is going to be one of those subroutines that runs in the back of my mind from this point forward. Should I imagine or come across another way of representing this, I will surely reach back to share.

  11. Stephanie Holeva March 20, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Thank you for providing such a wonderfully vivid representation of ASD. I think the only thing I would add is to remember that while children with ASD share common deficits, each one is a UNIQUE individual. As my professor at the M.I.N.D. Institute says “If you meet one person with ASD, you have met one person with ASD.

    • I completely agree, Stephanie. In fact, I hope the added dimension of my diagram allows for a more nuanced personal map or landscape to emerge, rather than simply plotting a point on a line, as the concept of a traditional spectrum diagram might.

      I particularly like the quote from your professor; as I’m meeting more children with ASD, I’m learning that each has a combination of traits that is as unique as a thumbprint. This is not a one-size-fits-all condition.