Autism has been defined many different ways. Some organizations, like the American Psychological Association, define it as a developmental disorder. This means it manifests during the developmental period of childhood and causes issues in realms of learning, language, behavior, and physical functioning. However, some members of the neurodiversity movement say the term “disorder” is pathologizing and that words like “neurotype” or “neurological phenomenon” should be used instead.
Although there are historical records going back centuries that show autistic behavior, many early cases were misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, childhood schizophrenia, or schizoid personality disorder. Leo Kanner, an Austrian American psychiatrist, was the first to use “autism” to describe the autistic neurotype in 1943. In Germany the following year, Hans Asperger coined the similar term “autistic psychopathy.”
In 1994, the DSM-IV was the first edition of the diagnostic manual to officially categorize autism as a spectrum, but the guide divided it into five conditions: autism, Asperger’s syndrome, PDD-NOS, Rett syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder. In 2013, the DSM-V combined all of these diagnoses under one label, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), to emphasize that while autism can manifest in many variations, the core phenomenon is the same.
Many people in the autism community prefer identity-first language; follow an individual’s preference whenever possible. Person-first language is often used to distinguish the person from their condition, but many autistic people say that autism is a core part of their identity, similar to gender or ethnicity. Some autistic individuals may call themselves “autists” or “autistics,” but using this term to describe someone who doesn’t self-identify that way can be read as making a choice for them. Non-autistic people in this context are called “allistic.” As with any identifier, only include where relevant and necessary, and identify people equally.
- What Is Autism? (Neuroqueer)
- Neurotribes by Steve Silberman
- Avoiding Ableist Language: Suggestions for Autism Researchers (Libertpub)
Autism is a neurological variant characterized by differences in communication, sensory processing, cognition, and socialization. Many people in the autism community prefer identity-first language; taking into account an individual’s preference whenever possible ensures coverage accurately reflects how someone identifies. Some autistic individuals may call themselves “autists” or “autistics,” but using this term to describe someone who doesn’t self-identify that way can be read as making a choice for them. Non-autistic people in this context are called “allistic.”