The term ‘spectrum’ was introduced to convey the fact that while all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways (as discussed at the beginning of this chapter). It was the research of Dr Lorna Wing and Dr Judith Gould in the late 1970s that was instrumental in defining autism as a spectrum, ranging from those severely affected to the – previously ignored – very high functioning. This is a helpful concept in that it reinforces the idea of individual variation and moves away from the old idea of autism as a single separate entity. However some people are now challenging the notion of a spectrum of severity of autism because it can be misleading to compare the severity of one person’s autism to another. The effect of autism on an individual varies depending on their environment and many other factors, and some people labelled as having mild autism have more problems coping with everyday life than those diagnosed as more severely affected.
Also, an individual described as being at the ‘lower-functioning’ end of the spectrum may have a remarkable ability in one particular area. Nevertheless, the term autistic ‘spectrum’ is still widely used and important to understand. The autistic spectrum includes various ‘sub conditions’, or types of autism which differ from classic autism.
Classic autism is sometimes referred to as Kanner’s autism, after Leo Kanner the child psychiatrist who first recognised children with ‘autistic aloneness’ in 1943, and typically describes those at the ‘lower-functioning’ end of the spectrum.