There’s a reason that autism is described as a “spectrum.” The condition has many manifestations, and while the DSM characterizes it based on social difficulties and language deficits, this is far from constant in all patients. In recent years, the DSM has even noted that the apparent difference in autism diagnoses between men and women may be based on the fact that women are less likely to exhibit language deficits; thus, any social difficulties are more likely to be ascribed to socialization, or the idea that women might be more reserved. For some of us, there’s the occasional refrain from people around us that we don’t “look” or “act” autistic. It’s not their fault for making assumptions; there’s just an idea of what autism is that sometimes fails to capture the shades of gray.
In recent weeks, there’s been a lot of talk about the CDC’s findings that 1 in 59 people have autism. In some circles, this has been described as proof of an “epidemic,” of a rising tide in manifestations of the condition that must have some cause, be it environmental, medical, or otherwise. The truth’s much more complicated than that, however. In addition to the suggestions above regarding underdiagnosis in women with autism, the CDC’s findings noticed a narrowing gap in misdiagnosis of black and Hispanic children on the spectrum. Before, these populations were much more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and emotional disturbance, rather than accurately diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder; now, the gap is much less severe, if still present to a certain degree.
Autism has been in the community for years. It has often gone unrecognized, as there tends to be a set idea of what autism “is” that cuts down on nuance. What these recent findings show is that many people in the community are on the spectrum, even if their manifestations of the condition may not be fully “visible.” By better understanding how the condition presents, and its various presentations across many populations, we can gain a better sense of what autism is and how it shapes people.