Are There Different Types of Autism?

boy holding a bear

Before the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association recognized four different types of Autism spectrum disorder: autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. 

However, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was redefined in 2013 in the DSM-5 to provide a more accurate and scientifically based method of diagnosing the condition. 

ASD is defined as a mental health condition that impacts how the brain receives social messages, causing problems with communication and social interactions. It is estimated that 1/36 people have ASD in the United States. While many people still use different names, there is only one form of autism that presents along a spectrum. 

autism written in wooden blocks
Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

People with autism, much like any other medical condition, will have varied symptoms and varying degrees of those symptoms affecting language skills, social interactions, and developmental milestones. 

To help you better understand what people used to see as different types of autism spectrum disorder, we will break down the former diagnostic categories and discuss how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders views the condition now and the diagnosis criteria currently. 

Key Takeaways

Autism Spectrum Disorder ASD presents in many different ways. Doctors and psychiatrists used four different diagnoses for people with autism. These separate conditions are now part of the spectrum. 

Autism affects the family in many different ways, and support is a vital part of the treatment process.

Autism awareness and advocacy play a significant role in increasing awareness and improving opportunities for individuals with autism. 

Former Autism Diagnosis Types

Before the DSM-5 was released in 2013, there were four types of Autism in the DSM-IV. Before that, in 1980, the DSM-3 recognized Kanner’s Syndrome, or what we now call autism spectrum disorder. 

Kanner’s Syndrome

Kanner’s Syndrome, or Classic Autistic Disorder, is named after Leo Kanner, who was a pioneer in children’s autism research. He stated that children with autism lack communication and language skills, are over or under-sensitive to sensory stimuli, and struggle with social cues. 

Defining characteristics of Kanner Syndrome included:

  • Struggling with social interaction
  • Lack of communication skills
  • Apathy towards activity
  • Withdrawal
  • Obsessive or repetitive behavior
  • A need for routine
  • Behavioral Issues

Kanner syndrome was removed from the DSM-IV and is now referred to as autism spectrum disorder.

boy holding a bear
Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Asperger’s Syndrome

Asperger’s Syndrome, also referred to as Level-1 Autism Spectrum Disorder is what some people call “high-functioning” autism.  People in this category usually possess higher-than-average intelligence and strong verbal skills but still struggle with social interactions. 

These children usually do not exhibit the typical speech delay or verbal issues associated with ASD and may even have a higher-than-average vocabulary for their age. 

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) is the term commonly applied to children who were hitting all major developmental milestones until about the age of two and then began to regress. 

This presentation or form of autism is often distressing and confusing to parents who may not understand what is happening. There is debate among the medical and psychological community concerning whether or not CDD is a separate developmental disorder that coincides with ASD.

Characteristics include:

  • No longer making eye contact 
  • No lo longer smiling
  • Becoming withdrawn and disinterested in activities
  • Loss of verbal and communication skills

Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified

Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) presents less severe symptoms. Children may have experienced delays in milestones, such as speaking or walking, but may not meet all the criteria for an ASD diagnosis. Children with PDD not otherwise specified usually struggle most in the areas of socialization and communication.

Diagnosis and Assessment

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), to receive a diagnosis of ASD, a person must have “persistent deficits in each of the three areas of social communication and interaction, plus at least two of the four types of restricted, repetitive behaviors.”

Social Communication & Interaction deficits:

  • Social-emotional reciprocity: difficulty with back-and-forth conversations, reduced sharing of emotions or interests.
  • Non-verbal communication: little to no eye contact, not understanding how to read or use body language or facial cues.
  • Developing and maintaining relationships: difficulty making friends, engaging in play, or lacking interest in peers.

Restrictive or Repetitive Behaviors

  • Repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech.
  • Insistence on routine and sameness, strict following of schedules, or ritualized patterns. 
  • Fixated interests with abnormal focus or intensity. 
  • Hyper (over) or hypo (under) reactivity to sensory input, such as sounds, textures, movement, lights, etc.

The above symptoms will be assessed based on severity at three criteria levels. Level 1 requires support of some kind, Level 2 requires substantial support, and Level 3 requires very substantial support. Additionally:

  • Symptoms must be present early in the developmental period; however, they may not fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities or may be masked by learned strategies.
  • Symptoms create significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
  • An intellectual disability or developmental delay cannot better explain the symptoms.
woman helping a student
Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Treatment Options and Support

Once diagnosed with ASD, there are several treatment options available based on the severity and prevalence of symptoms. Your doctor will help you create a treatment plan, and options may include the following:

  • Behavioral therapies focus on problem behaviors, teach new skills, and improve social skills and communication.
  • Educational therapies to manage coexisting developmental disorders like dyslexia, dyscalculia, or ADHD.
  • Family therapy helps the family and caregivers adjust to the diagnosis, learn helpful tools and tricks to manage behavioral problems and promote social and daily life skills. 
  • Other therapies, such as speech, physical, or occupational therapy, may be needed to improve motor skills, teach life skills, and improve communication.
  • Medications may help improve or control symptoms, especially when combined with therapy.

Impact on Families

Autism, like any other significant medical diagnosis, will impact the family of the individual. A diagnosis of a child can cause stress within a relationship or with other family members. It can also affect a family’s resources, such as time, money, and energy. 

An autism diagnosis can affect or create mental disorders like anxiety and depression in both the person diagnosed and the caregiver. 

Parents and caregivers can reach out to support groups designed explicitly for families experiencing autism where they can learn from others and receive the support needed. 

The Role of Advocacy and Awareness

For a long time, autism has been associated with a negative connotation. People often fear what they don’t understand, and ASD has been misunderstood for quite some time; however, in 2007, Autism Awareness became recognized worldwide!

But, there is still a long way to go to help society at large understand what it’s like to live with autism daily. The more people advocate for the rights of people with autism and make others aware of what ASD is and isn’t. The more mainstream acceptance will occur. 

Many studies have shown that employers who promote neurodiversity in the workplace have more productivity, creativity, and better employee morale. 

Self-advocacy is particularly important for people with autism. It enables them to speak for themselves, learn about their strengths, and improve their independence and self-esteem. 

Related Post: 8 Famous People with Autism

Resources and References

Looking for more information on Autism? Here are a few resources:

Answers to Autism FAQs

  • Autism is not an indicator of a person’s intelligence. 
  • No two people with autism have the same symptoms or skill sets.
  • Early intervention is a helpful tool for improving overall quality of life.
  • Autism affects a person’s social and communication skills.
  • Autism often co-exists with other mental health conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, and learning disorders. 
  • Co-occurring medical conditions may include allergies, asthma, epilepsy, digestive disorders, feeding disorders, sleep disorders, sensory integration dysfunction, and cognitive impairments.
  • Vaccines DO NOT cause autism.
  • Autism tends to lower bone density.
  • Children and adults can be diagnosed with autism.
  • 35% of adults with autism spectrum disorder are not employed, nor have they received postgraduate education after leaving high school.
  • Autism affects approximately 1 in 36 children. 
  • Boys are five times more likely to have autism than girls. 
  • ASD is more common than childhood cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined.


  • L. Elizabeth Forry

    L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with fifteen years of classroom teaching experience. She earned a Master of Science in Early Childhood Education from The University of North Dakota and has a Bachelor of Arts in English and one in Music from Lebanon Valley College. She has taught children in Japan, Washington D.C., Chicago, and suburban Maryland. She is trained as a reading therapist, has a TEFL certification, and has done extensive work with children regarding autism, ADHD, mental health, social-emotional development, and gender development. She has written curriculum for children and educators and has led training sessions for parents and educators on various topics related to early childhood development. She is the mother of two boys and resides outside of Annapolis, Maryland.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *