Autism, today technically referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD is a condition that currently has no known cure. While it has some physical symptoms such as a higher occurrence of gastro-intestinal inflammation, ASD is most known for its wide range of different behavioral symptoms. It’s because of this range that, before the 1980s, people with ASD were often misdiagnosed as being schizophrenic, an error that is no longer made with today’s more nuanced understanding.
As the name implies, however, ASD’s different behavioral symptoms fall along a spectrum of different symptoms, with the symptoms themselves falling along a spectrum of intensity. Today’s diagnostic classification looks at the symptoms themselves, diagnosing whether the individual symptom is mild or severe.
In the past, however, the classification of mild to severe wasn’t applied to the individual symptoms but to the ASD patient. Different ASD intensities fell into different groupings, and one of them was known as “Atypical Autism.”
So what is it, and who would have been considered in this group?
According To The Book
An American medical document known as the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is considered the “guide book” of American medical professionals when it comes to evaluating mental disorders according to an agreed-upon national standard. The DSM, as it is more commonly known, has occupied this position in American mental health science since its first publication in 1952. Since that initial publication, the DSM has occasionally been updated to reflect the current understanding of mental health conditions.
It wasn’t until the 1980s, with the third edition of the book, known as DSM-III, that Autism was even recognized as a unique condition. Before this, it was misdiagnosed as just a specific version of schizophrenia. After the inclusion of Autism in DSM-III medical professionals followed the protocols laid out in DSM-III and categorized people with Autism into four different categories. Atypical Autism, as it was informally known, was one of them.
What Is Atypical Autism?
The formal DSM-III designation for Atypical Autism was Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Other Specified, or PDD-NOS. It was one of four categories, the others being Asperger’s as the “mildest” Autism condition, PDD-NOS as more severe, Classic Autism, and Childhood Disintegration Disorder as the most severe.
PDD-NOS was one of the factors in showing the inadequacy of trying to categorize Autism patients by going over a list of symptoms that belonged only in specific categories, rather than focusing on the symptoms themselves. PDD-NOS became the “miscellaneous” category, where any symptoms that didn’t neatly fit into the other categories would go.
The only thing people could agree on was that PDD-NOS wasn’t as “mild” as Asperger’s, and included symptoms like:
Atypical/Unusual Social Behavior
This was a fairly broad area, so while there were no clear-cut definitions of what it was, it was easy to categorize what it wasn’t, and that was average/normal social interactions with others. If a person experienced difficulty socializing, or others commented that the behavior was abnormal, it would fall under this classification.
People with Atypical Autism or PDD-NOS are also often characterized by noticeable communication issues. This could manifest itself early on as delayed communication development, where an infant is speaking the way other babies are. Alternatively, later in life, it shows itself in unusual modes of speech. Some with this condition will speak in a flat, emotionless monotone, like a robot, for example, having never learned to change pitch to communicate feeling or intent.
As with many types of autism, Atypical Autism was also characterized by a focus on repetition. An AA patient would find repeating certain words, actions, or rituals soothing, and repeat them over and over again. This was an immediate, short-term way to deal with stress and attempt to calm down in an upsetting situation.
Atypical Sensory Experience
A very unique symptom of PDD-NOS is a sensory experience that differs from that of others. People with this symptom can process sensory input in very different ways. Smells can be stronger and more overpowering, sounds can be overwhelming; there may be a greater sensitivity to temperature, or tactile sensations. Even patterns or colors may be too bright. In some cases, the sensory experience is because of deprivation, with the PDD-NOS patient unable to smell or taste.
As the incidences of PDD-NOS patients ramped up, and it seemed like there might be more that fell in this category than the others, it was eventually decided by DSM-IV, in 2013, to collapse the previous categories that had been established. Rather than try to pigeonhole patients into specific symptoms in specific groups, the categorizations were removed entirely, the Autism Spectrum Disorder condition and diagnosis was used instead.
This is a much more accurate form of diagnosis for better results in treatment, as it focuses on on the individual symptoms, and the severity of each symptom, rather than drawing arbitrary lines where one ASD patient, “mild,” while another isn’t.