What is Autism?

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The term SPECTRUM is an important part of understanding autism because of the wide range of intensity, symptoms, behaviors and types of problems. There can be significant variations from one individual to another.

Historically, Autism was used as an umbrella term for a wide spectrum of disorders referred to as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). They are a group of neurobiological disorders that affect an individual’s ability to interact, communicate, relate, play, imagine, and learn.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This is the standard reference used to diagnose mental and behavioral conditions. In the DSM-5, the various subgroups including PDD and Asperger’s Syndrome are included under the heading of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

There is a range of skills and challenges in individuals on the autism spectrum. Children with ASD may have a striking lack of interest and ability to interact with other people. Many have a limited ability to communicate. They may display repetitive behaviors and experience distress over changes in routines or environments.

On the other end of the spectrum are individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, sometimes referred to as a high-functioning form of autism. These children and adults may have unusual social skills, language, and play skills.

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders typically demonstrate challenges in developing effective communication, appropriate behavior and successful social skills.

Our goal is to learn how these students learn best and to develop teaching strategies and communication styles to help them become effective communicators. Through appropriate intervention these individuals can learn skills to participate successfully in life opportunities.

Students with other learning challenges

When we learn what works for students on the autism spectrum we discover that many other students with other diagnoses and other learning or behavior challenges benefit from the same teaching and communication strategies. There is a broad range of individuals who will benefit from the use of visual strategies.

What works for individuals with autism and related learning difficulties?

Our observations are being supported by current research. We are finding that the majority of these students are visual learners. They understand what they see better than what they hear. Using visual strategies to support communication has become recognized as “best practice” for teaching these students.

What does the puzzle piece mean?

Sometimes people say that the puzzle represents Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) because it is very complex and ASD is a puzzle to all of us. We don’t know all the answers.

Here is another way to think of it. It takes a lot of people to create success for those individuals with ASD. Think of all the different people that provide information to help understand the challenges of ASD.








  • Parent
  • Psychologist
  • Psychiatrist
  • Speech-Language Pathologist
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Classroom Teacher
  • Behavior Therapist
  • Instructional Aide
  • Autism Consultant
  • Social Worker
  • Doctor
  • Dietician
  • And lots, lots more. . . .

Each of these people has training or experiences and information to help us understand some of the mysteries of autism. Each is a part of understanding each unique individual with ASD. No one discipline has all the answers.

In “puzzle terminology,” think of parents as the borders. They provide the shape and structure for all those pieces to fit together. All the other people and disiplines fill in the empty spaces for the whole picture to form.

That’s what makes autism so unique. Finding solutions for the challenges of ASD can be difficult. There are many areas to investigate. It frequently takes a variety of people and a combination of interventions to work together to create solutions. For example, solving a behavior problem may require input from a dietician, the Speech-Language Pathologist, the Occupational Therapist, a behavior specialist and lots more.

Communication is at the core of ASD. Each person who works with or lives with someone with autism needs to understand their communication strengths and challenges. Communication is the foundation for other learning. That is why improving communication is a critically important piece -the cornerstone- of the puzzle for everyone on the spectrum.

One goal is to help students become better communicators. But an equally important goal is to help others become better communication partners with individual students.

The power of the puzzle symbol is how it represents interlocking many pieces together to create the beauty of the whole picture.



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