Emotion emoticons used by a psychologist during a therapy session with a child with an autism spectrum disorder (formerly categorized into 5 types of autism)

If you have been in the Autism community for a while, you may know that there have been some changes to various terms, diagnoses, and classifications of Autism. This can make it tricky or even confusing when parents search for answers or resources to help children with Autism. It also can be confusing to people around you who may not have an understanding of the different types of Autism. 

There have been changes in recent years, which we will explain and get into, but from 1994 until 2013 - the year the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was published - Autism was classified into 5 different separate subtypes. Even though most of these types are not used as official diagnoses anymore, they are still recognized and used within the community.

Types of Autism 

So what are the 5 types of Autism that were used as diagnoses before 2013, and how are the different levels categorized now? Let’s discuss:

Aspergers Syndrome 

Before 2013, if someone was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, they were considered on the mild side of the Autism spectrum and exhibited average or above-average intelligence. This simply means that Aspergers was the diagnosis for individuals who showed social or behavioral symptoms of Autism but had solid verbal skills. Children who received this diagnosis would typically hit developmental milestones in their early years, and only displayed symptoms of Autism as social expectations and functions increased with age.

Today, the correct diagnosis would be Level 1 ASD since these individuals can still lead everyday lives with little to no assistance. However, people who were diagnosed before 2013 may still use the term to identify their symptoms to others. 

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

Since Aspergers Syndrome is considered a milder version along the Autism spectrum, then Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) would be on the opposite, more severe end of the spectrum. This type was considered the most severe because it also required the most support and assistance from families. Despite its severity, this rare type was often referred to as late-onset Autism. It is characterized by later developmental delays, social function, and verbal communication. For example, children would meet developmental milestones and then suddenly stop once they hit 2 or 3. Parents would grow concerned after they would notice the loss of the acquired social and verbal functions that they had previously learned. In today’s terms, this type of Autism would fall under Level 3 ASD.

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

Pervasive Developmental Disorder was used as a general diagnosis that would be used to describe the subtypes of Autism - similar to how we currently use the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, this particular diagnosis was also used to describe individuals who had slightly more severe symptoms than Aspergers but not as severe as Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.

Classic Autistic Disorder or Kanners Syndrome

As the name suggests, Classic Autistic Disorder was the diagnosis that most people associate with Autism. This typically involves delays or difficulty in behavior, communication, and social interactions. Sometimes referred to as Kanners Syndrome, this type was diagnosed when children needed a set routine and more assistance due to their limited social and verbal communication. Parents have reported that their children experience sensory issues causing them to be hypersensitive to things like lights, sounds, tastes, smells, etc.

Today, this would be classified as Level 3 ASD.

Rett Syndrome

Rett Syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that is mostly found in girls. Before 2013, when the DSM was updated, Rett Syndrome was considered to be a part of the Autism Spectrum due to some overlapping symptoms that may also be found in children with Autism. For example, children with Rett Syndrome will have difficulty communicating and impaired motor coordination skills that result in hands or arm flapping - which are all symptoms of ASD and why this is often misdiagnosed, even today.

Out of all of the former autism types, Rett Syndrome is the only one that is now recognized as a physical disorder.

Three Levels of Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Like we mentioned before, the 5 types of Autism diagnoses are no longer recognized in DSM-5 but are still widely used to describe symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder.  So what do we use now to describe the different levels of severity?

There are currently three levels of the spectrum disorder and are categorized by the levels of severity or required assistance. Once a child is diagnosed with ASD, an accompanying level of ASD will most likely be included. Level 1 is a mild case where individuals require little or no assistance; level 2 is moderate and may require assistance for specific daily tasks; Level 3 would be the most severe and require almost full-time support.

At Simple Spectrum, we know that some of you have been part of the Autism community before 2013 and may still use the terms that you are most familiar with. On the other hand, we know there are a lot of new parents who didn’t join this community until after 2013 and needed a better understanding of the types mentioned above and the current levels of ASD. 

Knowing your child’s ASD type or level will help you meet other parents or find specific resources for your child. Remember that we are all in this together, and as we continue to learn more about Autism in children, we can continue to learn how to help our children live a happy and healthy life!