Understanding Asperger's and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

a 2-d series of human silhouettes showing different patters in each of their 'brains' to symbolise neurodiversity

It is estimated that 1 in 70 people are on the autism spectrum, according to Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect).

Asperger's syndrome (AS) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were considered separate clinical diagnoses for nearly 20 years.

Asperger syndrome first appeared in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th revision (known as DSM-4) in 1994. By 2010 it was decided to move AS under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorders in DSM-5 in 2013.

The language within and used to refer to the people in our community who live with an autism spectrum disorder is ever-evolving.

What is Autism? How do we describe it?

Autism is a lifelong condition and developmental disorder which affects how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences the world around them.

The autism spectrum is not linear, people living with ASD have a diverse and varying constellation of characteristics relating to their strengths, communications, social interactions, leisure and play (Source: Aspect).

Every person with autism is different - this is why it is described as a ‘spectrum’.

Aspect lists the characteristics of autism as:

  • Strengths and Interests
  • Communication
  • Social Interactions
  • Leisure and Play
  • Sensory
  • Thinking
  • Experiencing and displaying emotions

What is Asperger's Syndrome?

The first medical research into autism was published in the mid-20th century by Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger and Psychiatrist Leo Kanner. The syndrome which would be named after Hans, along with wider recognition of his work would only happen after his death in 1980.

Since then, his initial work has inspired much scientific research.

For the two decades in which AS and ASD existed separately, there was considered to be a lot a grey area between the two conditions, which were largely considered to be the same. There was a significant dilemma in academic and medical circles whether to 'split' the conditions or 'lump' them together.

Previously AS was broadly differentiated a milder form of autism, however this proved to be problematic. The assumption that daily life would be less challenging for someone with one condition or disability (with such diverse characteristics) over another is an ineffective generalisation. There is no biomedical marker which differentiates Asperger's from autism.

A pair of hands framing the autism awareness ribbon, coloured with orange, dark blue and teal puzzle pieces

Asperger's, autism and identity

While 'Asperger's syndrome' or 'Asperger's' are not formally used in diagnosis today, there are people who live with ASD who continue to use those terms.

This is largely due to their lived experience of their own diagnosis. For many people, their disability and their identity are not always binary.

International Asperger's Day (18 February) is still recognised in some countries, and World Autism Awareness Day (2 April) is also recognised. 18 February is the anniversary of Hans Asperger's birth.

While some countries, organisations and individuals choose to recognise International Asperger's Day, both are valid days to seek and encourage further education on autism spectrum and neurodiverse disorders, and the challenges faced by people living with these in neurotypical world.

Much of the stigma which has come with autism, initially from incorrect comments suggesting autism was the result of 'bad parenting' - these comments have been scientifically rejected. These led to decades of research attempting to conventionally 'cure' autism instead of developing ways for families, the education system, and society to adapt to it.

APM and people with autism

Every year APM Employment Services supports thousands of Australians living with autism to find and keep employment.

As with every person who joins the Disability Employment Services program, APM employment consultants support each job seeker with autism to find work that is suitable for them, with an employer who understands their skills and work capacity.

Caley is a former APM job seeker who was happy to share his story of finding employment and explain how he approaches his job...

Read a full transcript of this video.

Using the best language to refer to autism

There are any clinical and non-clinical terms used by many folks who do and don't live with ASD. People will use their preferred terminology for themselves or their loved one living with ASD.

While it's safest to ask the people or person what their preference is, there are some simple and respectful ways to refer to people who live with an autism spectrum disorder:

  1. Person / people / Individual (living) with autism - This is accepted as respectful language to use when referring to people on the autism spectrum. This an example of person-first language which does not define a person by their diagnosis, as opposed to saying something like 'disabled person' it is more respectful to say 'person with disability'.
  2. My (son/sister/cousin/loved one) is autistic - This is also accepted as respectful language to use. This is an example of an identity-first language, describing someone as autistic because it's an inherent part of their identity and something to be proud of (Source: ABC).
  3. Autistic - Whether a loved one of, or a person living with ASD chooses to use or identify as autistic is entirely their own preference, and can be done respectfully (see #2). If you are unsure, it is not impolite to ask to see what they are most comfortable with.
  4. 'High functioning' and 'low functioning' - Chris Bonnello of Autistic Not Weird shared his lived experience and opinion on these terms, and why they are considered insulting. 'Low functioning' implies a person's strengths are ignored and is not respectful. Additionally 'high functioning' implies a person's weakness or areas they struggle in are ignored, and overlooks any specific needs or support they might require. Autistic writer Ibby Grace wholly captures this sentiment: "Functioning labels reduce people to functioning, like a human is a human doing, not a human being. We are meant to be. That's what makes us worthy." (Source: ABC)
  5. 'Neurodiverse' and 'neurodivergent' - these are also terms which celebrate people with autism. "Neurodiverse" is a term which embraces all neurological unique-ness, and does not refer to autism alone.

Another term worth explaining is 'neurotypical'. Meaning neurologically 'typical'. This is a term used by the autistic community to describe people who do not live with any kind of neurological disability or condition.

'Mainstream' can be used to refer to certain things for example the education system. A person with autism might enrol in and complete a "mainstream course" within the neurotypical education system (at an institution like a TAFE campus or University).

Phrases and terms such as (but not limited to): 'quirky', 'weird', 'odd', 'normal', 'almost normal', 'not severe enough', 'everyone's a little bit autistic', 'doesn't seem autistic' are not considered respectful language referring to either children or adults with autism.

Today's diagnostic model for autism determines the levels of support required for individuals in distinct areas. People with autism are not diagnosed according to their level of 'functioning'.

Additional Resources:

Are you looking for support?

As part of the NDIS Partners in the Community program, APM Communities help people with disability in several regions in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory to access support.

APM Communities' Local Area Coordinators have provided positive support outcomes for people with disability, including people who live with ASD. They have helped provide daily support for families like Paula's, improved access to local creative programs for Charlie, and encouraged grant applications which enabled Xanthe to start her own business.

Are you looking to find a supportive workplace? We're here to help!

Through APM's support programs, we're strong believers of the person-first approach to all people with injury, illness and disability, and we support our participants' chosen language or terms of reference.

If you're living with autism or Asperger's and are wanting to find a job you enjoy in a supportive workplace, APM can assist you through the Disability Employment Service program to find something which matches your skills.

Speak to us to see if you're eligible for one of our employment services programs. Register below or call 1800 276 276.