Ever heard Down syndrome called a “spectrum disorder”? While “spectrum” in a disability context typically refers to autism, “spectrum disorder” could mean any condition that covers different types and levels of impairment. With autism, these typically include:
- Openness to interactions with the larger world
- Ability to communicate (especially verbal vs. nonverbal)
- Nature and intensity of stimming (fidgeting) habits
- Stress points that trigger meltdowns
With Down syndrome, a spectrum would consider:
- Extent of learning abilities
- Height, body proportions, and/or facial features
- Severity of physical health conditions
There are many other disabilities (cerebral palsy, vision impairment, and hearing loss, to name a few) where symptoms can be categorized along a “spectrum” of severity.
Where Do We Draw the Line?
Another characteristic of spectrums is that it can be hard to tell where one level ends and the next begins. (How many “low-functioning” people could score higher with better education and accommodations?)
It can even be hard to tell whether two levels belong in the same spectrum. By medical definition, today’s “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD) is an amalgamation of several conditions once classified separately—including Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and simply “autism.” Currently, there are three recognized levels on the autism spectrum:
- Level 1 (the former “Asperger’s syndrome”) means relatively mild difficulties with socializing and prioritizing. People at this level can teach themselves to function independently, but do best with some support.
- Level 2 symptoms include conspicuous stimming and increased unwillingness/inability to conform. Requires accommodations and active support.
- People on Level 3 typically are completely nonverbal, seem lost in their own worlds, and show little or no response to others. However, they often make substantial progress when receiving personal guidance and taught to use alternative and augmentative communication (AAC).
None of which is to say that the spectrum for ASD—or any disorder—is now permanently set. Many people (particularly parents who feel that children with Level 3 autism get inadequate consideration) would like to break the three levels of autism back into two or three different disorders. And in any demographic, every individual is unique, and will have symptoms or abilities that vary from “standard” definitions.
Individuals First, Classifications Second
Unique identity is one aspect we must never lose sight of. Appealing (read “easy”) as it may be to get a diagnosis and scribble a quick plan based on, “This is what you can do, this is what you need,” that’s the road to all-around dysfunction. Pressure to conform to stereotypes leads to inhibition and/or rebellion. “This isn’t for you” thinking keeps people from working toward their potential. Stifling “atypical” behavior means also stifling original ideas. In the end, all of society is the poorer.
There’s more to understanding disability than defining categories and drawing lines. There’s also the key factor of knowing—and appreciating—people as individuals.
For More Information
Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive list I know of that covers all medically recognized disabilities and disorders. For those wishing to explore spectrums and categories further, I recommend the following resources:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act website (under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Justice) offers an overview of disability types, along with extensive details on accommodations requirements.
- The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published and periodically updated by the American Psychiatric Association, includes most recognized disorders with mental–emotional components. The online resource library has sections on intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder, and there’s also a section on stigma and discrimination.
- The IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) website has a Parents and Families resource section.