Understanding Different Types of Autism

As a parent of a child with autism, you might have heard about the different types of autism. 

Those with ASD all struggle to some extent with social interactions, empathy, communication, and flexible behavior.

The degree of impairment and blend of symptoms fluctuate from one person to another. That’s why two people with the same diagnosis might be distinctly different in terms of development.

As a parent of a child with ASD, you’ve probably heard these terms to describe it:

  • High-functioning 
  • Atypical
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Pervasive developmental disorder

You might feel confused by the sheer scope of terminology. After all, all you as a parent want to do is help your child!

It doesn’t help that some professionals, from health care to the classroom, misuse these terms or in different ways.

Knowing where your child falls on the spectrum can help you understand your child better. 

Additionally, it will give you the tools to break down the various phrases and simplify interactions with their support team.

Decoding the DSM

Until 2013, the Diagnostic Statistic Manual (DSM) listed five different types of autism spectrum disorders. 

Some health care workers use the phrase “the autisms” to avoid focusing on the subtle variations between the conditions. 

While well-meaning, this can confuse others at times. 

Before 2013, the differences between the five types of autism were tricky for parents seeking to find out which condition affected their child.

In an attempt to simplify matters, the American Psychiatric Association consolidated the pervasive developmental disorders.

The most recent edition of the DSM now offers one diagnostic classification: autism spectrum disorder.

Before 2013, the most common types of autism were:

  • Classic autism
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder
  • Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

These forms share similar symptoms, but the severity and the effect it has on the person vary.

Autistic disorder was the severest. To a lesser degree, Asperger’s (or high-functioning autism) and PDD-NOS (atypical autism) were less challenging.

Because of discrepancies in classification and diagnoses, the forms listed above are known now as ASD.

One label allows parents and professionals to focus more on whether children are on the spectrum, rather than where they fall on it.

Types of Autism - Child Playing In Mud

Image by Maurice Garlet from Pixabay

Types of Autism

However, just because there is now an official umbrella term for multiple conditions does not mean that everyone uses them. 

Here is a brief explanation of the main types of autism.

Classic Autism

This is the older phrase for describing ASD but also what most people think of when they hear “autism.” This term covers the same symptoms as ASD, but to a more serious degree. 

Children described as having classic autism are further on the spectrum and have more developmental challenges.

Notable delays in language, social, and communication obstacles are trademarks of classic autism diagnoses. 

Additionally, those with this type have particular behaviors and interests as well as cognitive impairments. 

Asperger’s Syndrome

Children with Asperger’s have a mild form of autism. She might be brilliant and adept in day-to-day life. 

You might notice that she tends to focus on subjects that interest her and talk about them all the time. 

This extreme interest, as well as behaviors like repetitive motions, might make social interactions difficult for her.


Children with this diagnosis are often somewhere between those with Asperger’s and those with classic autism. 

PDD is mostly used to describe those whose symptoms don’t line up neatly with the other forms of autism.

In 2010, the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems defined PDD as:

‘A type of pervasive developmental disorder that differs from childhood autism either in age of onset or in failing to fulfil all three sets of diagnostic criteria. This subcategory should be used when there is abnormal and impaired development that is present only after age three years, and a lack of sufficient demonstrable abnormalities in one or two of the three areas of psychopathology required for the diagnosis of autism (namely, reciprocal social interactions, communication, and restricted, stereotyped, repetitive behaviour) in spite of characteristic abnormalities in the other area(s). Atypical autism arises most often in profoundly retarded individuals and in individuals with a severe specific developmental disorder of receptive language.’

These symptoms may have less of an effect on socializing and communicating with others.

Types of Autism - Child Playing With Blocks

Image by Nathan Legakis from Pixabay

Sandcastle Centers

No matter what you or your child’s care team call ASD, the most important thing is your child’s individual needs. 

No diagnosis will be able to tell you the hurdles your child will face. That’s why finding the right treatment, rather than focusing on a label, is the best thing you can do for your child.

Call or message us today. Our qualified therapists can help your child grow and live a happy, independent life. 

For more information and resources, check out the blog!