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Special Education, Autism

The following text is taken out of the 'Report of the Task Group on Autism' which is fully available below.


What is Autism?


An Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a complex developmental disability that essentially affects the way a person communicates and relates to people. The term ‘autistic spectrum’ is often used because the condition varies from person to person. Asperger syndrome is a condition at the more able end of the spectrum. At the ‘less able’ end of the spectrum is Kanner’s syndrome, sometimes referred to as ‘classic autism’.


The condition and behaviour patterns associated with “early infantile autism” were first described by child psychiatrist, Leo Kanner (1943). According to Kanner, the main features of this condition include severe social impairment, communication, rigidity of thought processes and ritualistic patterns of behaviour. At much the same time in Europe, a very similar group of children were described by Hans Asperger (1944) and characterised by their odd, naïve, and inappropriate social behaviour, long-winded pedantic speech, poor non-verbal communication, narrow interests and poor motor co-ordination skills. They were also described as having difficulty in applying skills in a flexible, functional way. The work of both Leo Kanner (1943) and Hans Asperger (1944) form the basis of our understanding of Autistic Spectrum Disorders today. While there has been much debate around the definition of autism, and Asperger syndrome in particular, it is now generally accepted that both autism and Asperger syndrome fall within a broader group of social and communication disorders, commonly known as Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD).


One of the most significant contributions to the clinical understanding of autism as a spectrum disorder, has been that of Lorna Wing (1979). After conducting an intensive epidemiological study, Wing concluded that social impairment is a disorder of development and that the different manifestations, whether or not they are named as syndromes, are all part of a ‘spectrum’ of related disorders. Wing found that there were 3 areas of development associated with this social impairment, forming a cluster of features that provide diagnostic criteria for the identification of autism. This cluster is referred to as the triad of impairments:



  • impairment of Social Interaction;

  • impairment of Social Communication;

  • impairment of Social Understanding and Imagination.



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