The Autism Spectrum: How Colored Is It?


Did you know that autism is a spectrum?

A jar of colored pencils, representing the autism spectrum

Contrary to popular belief, not all autistic children are created equal. Autism has moved from a categorical to a dimensional point of view. High functioning vs. low functioning, Asperger’s vs. autism is no longer an appropriate distinction. Presently, a dimension of severity based on social communication difficulties and restrictive, repetitive behaviors helps us understand the disorder better. The spectrum is very wide, with three levels of severity that span mild to very severe characteristics:

  • Level 1 “Requiring support”
  • Level 2 “Requiring substantial support”
  • Level 3 “Requiring very substantial support”

Moreover, the colors of the autism spectrum include more specific levels of language and intellectual difficulties; medical or genetic conditions, or environmental factors; among others. These may include:

  • Down’s syndrome
  • Epilepsy
  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Very low birth weight
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (among others)

Severity Levels and Their Impact on Functioning

Severity levels are related to the level of functioning, such as low levels of cognitive ability and language difficulties. These children may need more supportive services. Supportive services also make a difference in how the child will do in the future. Earlier intervention services lead to a better future. 

Symptoms are noticeable during the first year of life when they are very severe. They can include delays in development, social, and language skills. Symptoms can range from lack of eye contact, poor social exchange, and limited language abilities. Sometimes there is also regression or loss of skills. “Red flags” involve more severe symptoms, whereas “pink flags” encompass more subtle symptoms. 

A picture of a little boy

The most important takeaways from this colored spectrum metaphor:

  • It is more difficult to differentiate autistic characteristics from typical development when the symptoms are subtle
  • Symptoms can change over time

If you suspect that your child is having delays in any of the areas of development, such as motor, communication, social, adaptive, and cognitive, do not hesitate to seek an evaluation from an early childhood professional. Early assessment and intervention always work!