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What Are the Different Types of Autism

Jun 28, 2024 | Autism

Understanding autism can be challenging due to the wide range of behaviors and characteristics shown by those on the spectrum. For parents, educators, and individuals seeking clarity, it’s crucial to recognize the diverse forms of autism and how they manifest.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) encompasses a variety of conditions that include social deficits and restricted and repetitive behaviors. Previously, different conditions were defined that captured different aspects of autism, and some were even considered subtypes. Now, autism is a spectrum disorder that includes many variations on a severity scale. Knowing how these variations and the different ways autism manifests helps parents, educators, and individuals provide the best support and understanding for individuals on the spectrum.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a complex developmental condition that affects individuals in diverse ways. Characterized by a range of social, communication, and behavioral challenges, autism isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis and manifests uniquely in each person. Some individuals may struggle more with social interactions and communication difficulties, while others might have intense, focused interests or engage in repetitive behaviors more often.

However, autism has core symptoms shared by everyone on the spectrum, which must include:

  • Communication difficulties, both verbal and nonverbal
  • Restricted (intense and focused in a particular area) interests and repetitive behaviors
  • Symptoms that affect one’s ability to function in school, work, and other areas of life

ASD typically arises early in life, with traits more noticeable in children due to distinct behaviors and possible developmental delays. Young children with autism may avoid eye contact, have difficulty engaging in pretend play, or repeat certain actions like rocking or hand-flapping. The condition is often more difficult to notice in adults because they have learned to mask their symptoms or develop coping strategies, making it less apparent but no less significant.

Recognizing that autism exists on a spectrum is crucial for effective diagnosis and intervention. This broad understanding allows clinicians to identify and support the greatest number of individuals with autism while tailoring interventions to meet each person’s unique needs.

However, autism was not always viewed this way, and understanding the different subtypes of autism, which are no longer defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, can aid our understanding of the condition. These forms of autism are no longer recognized as distinct conditions but do allow us to understand the various ways autism manifests and the support different subtypes require.

Classic Autism: A Historical Perspective

Classic autism, initially defined by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943, was the first recognized form of autism. Kanner described children who showed significant social interaction and communication challenges and had repetitive behaviors. These early observations laid the foundation for understanding autism as a distinct developmental disorder, but at the time, it was considered a singular diagnosis, separate from other conditions.

As clinical research progressed, other subtypes of autism began to be recognized (as separate conditions), including Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Each of these subtypes presented with unique symptoms, though they shared core characteristics with autistic disorder. These different conditions captured part of the spectrum, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that researchers determined these were part of a spectrum disorder that included the same core characteristics.

In 2013, the DSM-5 redefined these various subtypes under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder, recognizing the spectrum nature of autism and emphasizing that it encompasses a range of presentations and severities. However, some individuals may have been diagnosed with these conditions, which are still commonly known. Understanding how these conditions were defined previously gives us a better picture of the diverse ways autism presents between individuals.

Aspeger’s Syndrome

Individuals previously diagnosed with Asperger’s typically show above-average intelligence and do not experience significant delays in language development. However, they often face challenges with social interactions and nonverbal communication, may engage in repetitive behaviors, and often have intense, narrow interests.

According to the spectrum model, Asperger’s syndrome would be considered Level 1 severity, with individuals requiring some support to manage their condition and having deficits in social communication and restricted/repetitive behaviors.

Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

PDD-NOS was a diagnosis given to individuals who met some but not all of the characteristics of autistic disorder and still faced challenges with social interaction and communication. It recognizes that an individual has a pervasive developmental disorder but not one that could be easily classified within the previous PDD framework.

In the spectrum model, PDD-NOS is now recognized as autism requiring some support (Level 1 severity), especially with social communication and interaction.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) is a rare condition characterized by late-onset developmental regression, typically after at least two years of normal development. Children with CDD experience significant losses in previously acquired skills, including language, social abilities, and movement skills. This regression distinguishes CDD from other forms of autism, although it shares core autistic traits and is recognized as part of the spectrum.

Rett Syndrome

Rett syndrome is a genetic disorder predominantly affecting females (due to its presence on the X chromosome). It is characterized by normal growth followed by a loss of acquired skills, particularly in movement and communication. Children with Rett Syndrome often develop repetitive hand movements, slowed growth, and cognitive impairments.

Although it presents with autism symptoms, such as social withdrawal and repetitive behaviors, Rett Syndrome is no longer considered a psychological condition as it is caused by mutations of the MECP2 gene rather than by a distinct psychological disorder.

The Autism Spectrum: A Modern Perspective

With the publication of the DSM-5 in 2013, the understanding of autism shifted significantly, recognizing it as a spectrum disorder. This modern perspective replaced the distinct categories of autism with a single diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. This change reflects the continuum of autism characteristics alongside the varying levels of support individuals may require rather than viewing each condition as separate.

The DSM-5 recognizes three levels of support:

  • Level 1: Requiring support: Individuals at this level may have noticeable difficulties with social interactions and organization but can function relatively independently with some assistance.
  • Level 2: Requiring substantial support: Individuals at this level exhibit more significant challenges in social communication and repetitive behaviors, requiring substantial support to navigate daily activities.
  • Level 3: Requiring very substantial support: Individuals at this level face severe difficulties in social communication and behavior, requiring extensive support to manage their daily lives and ensure their safety and well-being.

Under the spectrum model, clinicians can diagnose individuals based on the level of support they require for communication difficulties and repetitive/restricted movements and interests. Additionally, the modern spectrum model allows clinicians to recognize autism in the greatest number of individuals while providing guidelines to develop tailored intervention plans for each person’s unique needs and strengths.

Embracing the Diversity of Autism With Start My Wellness

Understanding the diverse manifestations of autism and the levels of support required helps us provide better care and tailored interventions for individuals on the spectrum. Recognizing the spectrum nature of autism, and how it manifests in previously defined subtypes is crucial for effective diagnosis and support.

At Start My Wellness, we are dedicated to helping individuals with autism and their families navigate these complexities. Our team of experienced clinicians is well-equipped to offer personalized care plans that address the unique needs of each person on the spectrum. We understand that no two individuals with autism are the same, and we strive to provide the support and resources necessary for each person to thrive.

If you or a loved one needs support, we are here to help. Contact Start My Wellness at (248)-514-4955 and meet our therapists today to learn more about our services and how we can assist you on your journey.


  1. Start My Wellness: Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder
  2. Start My Wellness: Is Autism Different in Kids vs. Adults?
  3. Start My Wellness: Exploring Autism: Understanding Its Diverse Types
  4. International Rett Syndrome Foundation: About Rett Syndrome
  5. Autism Speaks: Levels of Autism
Dr. Anton Babushkin

Author: Anton Babushkin, PhD

Looking for a Therapist? Start My Wellness has highly experienced Licensed Therapists that are currently accepting new patients.


Blog Posts Tags: Autism
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