Misusing the “spectrum” in “autism spectrum.”

“We’ve all on the autism spectrum” is a claim I’ve come across very often over the years. Recently I’ve even had a couple of people use my writing to back up this odd claim, which is all the more bizarre since I do have a previous post arguing directly against it. I think it’s about time I updated that old post – I still stand by everything I said in it, but I want to say it again and clearer, and taking into account how I’ve seen the claim used a lot lately.

Free use spectrum image

Free use spectrum image

We are not all on the autism spectrum. Anyone who says we are, is unhelpfully and misleadingly misusing the term “spectrum.” “Autism Spectrum” is an actual condition that can be diagnosed by professionals in the field, and that requires significant impact on the individual’s life in order to get that diagnosis. The word “spectrum” in the phrase is not referring to a blurring with normal behaviours, it is not referring to borderline cases, neither is it intended to capture those who exhibit autistic traits but otherwise fall short of the diagnostic criteria. No. The term “spectrum” is capturing the diversity of symptoms and severity – and in some cases and more so historically, the actual diversity of conditions – that are considered to amount to autism. Not ones that fall short of it. That term – “spectrum” – is not a throw-away term, it is part of the name of the condition of autism.

Considering existing wide-spread confusion about what autism is, all it does is cause further confusion and downplaying of the reality and importance of the condition, when people claim we all fall on the spectrum.

What we may all have (and even this is far from a simple truth) is some autistic traits or tendencies, such that if those traits were taken to extreme levels and accompanied other behaviours, that they may be identified as autism. But I could make a thousand comparisons where we could see that having something that looks like a condition is blatantly not the same or ever comparable to having the relevant condition – a paper-cut is not on the spectrum of life-threatening wounds; a piece of note paper with two sentences on it is not on the spectrum of great novels; a toasted piece of bread at home is not on the spectrum of gourmet dishes in 5-star restaurants. Just because things look similar, or appears related, doesn’t mean they are meaningfully or functionally the same. So even if we completely remove the word “spectrum” in “autism spectrum” from its actual and intended medical meaning, we’d still be left standing on thin ice trying to explain why it makes any sense to claim we’re all on the autism spectrum.

At the very least, if people strongly feel we do all exhibit meaningful autism traits or all fall in some way on a broad autism phenotype, then they should make it’s clear that is what they mean (and back it up while they’re at it). They should avoid using the term “spectrum” to capture this point though  – it is inaccurate, unhelpful, confusing, misleading. It causes irritation to those fighting to help the public better understand what it means to say someone is actually on the autism spectrum, and it down-plays the very real challenges people face who are on the spectrum. I do recognise that there are good intentions behind those who try to say we’re all on the spectrum – they’re often trying to make the condition be less scary, or help the public relate to those with autism – but I strongly feel that using the term “spectrum” to make this point, causes more harm than good.


For further arguments to this effect, and to see some minor ways in which those arguments have changed alongside changes in diagnostic criteria over the past few years, feel free to pop through and compare this to my original post from 2011: “Why we’re not all on the autism spectrum.”

This entry was posted in Attitudes to Autism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Misusing the “spectrum” in “autism spectrum.”

  1. fnvandok says:

    Again, Autism&Oughtisms, a good point well made. Thank you.

  2. Tutak says:

    Great post, beautifully put. Thank you very much.

  3. Kiri says:

    This is voice appropriation and it would not be tolerated if it were directed against another group, Native North Americans, for example.

  4. Wise words and very thought provoking.

  5. robin b says:

    yes. you are either on the ‘spectrum’ or you are not. it only includes those who need to know where they are on the said, autism ‘spectrum’. good point. the distinction in language, the fine point of it’s meaning is something a person with autism would notice!!!

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