Glossary – autism & related conditions

autism flowerAn explanation of all the confusing terms relating to Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Please note: many of the terms will have different definitions depending on who you talk to. I have chosen the one I best identify with.  I am not recommending or endorsing any treatments listed below. For terms relating to NZ Education please see my post Funding and help in Auckland for children with a disability

ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) – the use of techniques and principles to bring about meaningful and positive change in behaviour.

ADD – an outdated term for ADHD.

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) – is a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

Anxiety – a feeling of worry or nervousness that can include a racing heart, muscular tensions, sweating and stomach ache. Intense anxiety can result in repetitive behaviors that appear to serve no function.  Panic disorders and phobias are common with those with autism.

Apraxia of Speech (can be called developmental apraxia, childhood apraxia of speech (CAS), verbal dyspraxia) – Motor speech disorder when children have problems saying sounds, syllables and words. The brain has problems planning to move the body parts needed for speech (lips, jaw, tongue).  Not to be confused with Apraxia – Neurological condition where people find it difficult or impossible to perform tasks or movements even though their muscles are normal.  Typically refers to loss of motor function such as a stroke or injury.

Asperger’s syndrome – a term previously used for high functioning autism.  “People with Asperger’s syndrome tend to have an average or above average IQ and they start speaking within the expected age range” (Simon Baron-Cohen, Autism Research Centre, UK). On 1 October 2013, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) updated the diagnostic label of Asperger’s Syndrome (along with Autistic Disorder and PDD-NOS) to be replaced by one umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Assistive Technology – specialised equipment and technology that students with additional learning needs in class to increase or improve their ability to participate and learn.

Auditory Processing Disorder – an umbrella term for a variety of disorders that affect the way the brain processes auditory information.  The ear is normal but they cannot process the information they hear in the same way others do.

Autistic Disorder – An outdated term for classic autism. “Folks with autism tend to have a language delay or start talking later in life, and they also have a below average IQ” (Simon Baron-Cohen, Autism Research Centre, UK). On 1 October 2013, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) updated the diagnostic label of Asperger’s Syndrome (along with Autistic Disorder and PDD-NOS) to be replaced by one umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication (verbal and nonverbal), social skills and behaviour. The umbrella term for Asperger’s Syndrome, Autistic Disorder and PDD-NOS.

Biomedical Therapies – alternative therapies, dietary modifications and nutritional supplementation targeting a person’s biochemistry and aiming for improved wellness. Normally implemented by naturopathic physicians.  This can include a gluten and/or casein free diet to treat gastrointestinal disorder and may improve mood.

Chromosome Disorder – can result from changes in either the number or structure of the chromosomes. Changes in the number of chromosomes happen when there are more or fewer copies of a particular chromosome than usual. Changes in chromosome structure happen when the material in a an individual chromosome is disrupted or rearranged in some way.

Cognitive – The ability to perceive, think, reason or analyse.

Cognitive Ability – An individual’s intellectual ability.

Depression – is a medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.  Causes feeling of sadness and/or loss of interest in activities once enjoyed.

Developmental Delay – the condition of a child being less developed mentally and physically that is normal for their age. See also Global Developmental Delay.

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) – When a child has problems with language development that continue to school age and beyond. The language problems have a significant impact on everyday social interactions or educational progress and occur in the absence of ASD, intellectual disability or biomedical condition.

DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) – is the product of more than 10 years of effort by hundreds of international experts in all aspects of mental health.  Their dedication and hard work have yielded an authoritative volume that defines and classifies mental disorders in order to improve diagnoses, treatment, and research.

Dyspraxia (or Development Co-ordination Disorder) – Neurological disorder beginning in childhood that can affect planning of movements and co-ordination as a result of brain messages not being accurately transmitted to the body.

Echolalia –  a form of verbal imitation, is one of the more common characteristics of communication in people with ASD. Although previously seen by some as maladaptive behaviour, an increasing body of evidence has led most experts to recognise echolalia as a bridge to meaningful, self-generated speech with communicative intent.

Electroencephalogram (EEG) – The recording of electrical impulses in the brain that can be used to diagnose some neurological conditions, such as seizures.

Epilepsy (Seizure Disorder) – abnormal electrical activity in the brain, can produce a temporary loss of consciousness (a “blackout”), a body convulsion, unusual movements, or staring spells.

Executive Function – The ability to plan, organize and follow through, as well as the ability to inhibit actions, delay responses, make appropriate choices and shift attention. Individuals with ASD, learning disabilities and other neurological conditions often have deficits in executive function, which is important to the attainment of goals.

Expressive Language – the ability to be able to put thoughts into words and sentences.

Fixed interests – Focusing all your attention and time on one subject or object(s).

Gastrointestinal Disorder – Gastritis, chronic constipation, colitis, celiac disease and esophagitis can be associated with autism and  young children with autism have problems such as chronic constipation or diarrhea.

Genetic Disorder –  a chromosome abnormality that can cause autism.

Global Developmental Delay – the general term to describe a condition that occurs during the development period of a child between birth and 18 years.  It is usually defined by the child being diagnosed with having a lower intellectual functioning that what is perceived as “normal”. It is usually accompanied by having significant limitations in communication.

Hypertonia – Increased tension or stiffness in the muscles.

Hypotonia – Decreased tension or floppiness in the muscles.

IEP (Individual Education Plan) – An educational plan that outlines special education and related services specifically designed to meet the educational needs of student with a disability.

Inclusion – The concept that students with disabilities should be integrated with their non-disabled peers; also referred to as mainstreaming.

Incontinence – Lack of bladder or bowel control.

Intellectual Disability (ID) – is a generalised neurodevelopment disorder characterised by significantly impaired intellectual and adaptive functioning. It is defined by an IQ score under 70 in addition to deficits in two or more adaptive behaviours that affect everyday, general living.

Interoception – is a lesser-known sense that helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body. Those who struggle with the interoceptive sense may have trouble knowing when they feel hungry, full, hot, cold or thirsty.

Joint Attention – Sharing one’s experience of observation of an object or event by making eye contact with another person, following gaze, gesturing and pointing.

Learning Disability – Difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities.

Mainstreaming – The concept that students with disabilities should be integrated with their non-disabled peers. (Also referred to as inclusion).

Makaton – language programme using signs and symptoms to help people communicate. It is designed to support spoken language and the signs and symbols are used with speech in spoken word order.

Motor Planning or Praxis – planning and execution of a series of movements.  Those with deficits may require much more practice of motor activities to develop motor skills.

Motor Skills – coordinating and organising bodily muscular movements.

Gross motor skills –  the abilities to required to control larger muscles such as those in legs and arms needed for running, jumping and kicking a ball.

Fine motor skills – the abilities required to control smaller muscles including those in the hand needed to grasp, write or cut.

Neurodevelopment – disorders are impairments of the growth and development of the brain or central nervous system. A narrower use of the term refers to a disorder of brain function that affects emotion, learning ability, self control and memory that unfold as an individual develops and grows.

Neuro Motor – A process involving both the nervous system and muscles

Neurologist –a physician specialising in neurology and trained to investigate, or diagnose and treat neurological disorders. (can specialise in Paediatric Neurology).

Obsession – when the intensity and duration of a person’s hobby or fixed  interest in a topic, collection or object increases to an unhealthy level that prevents them from interacting with the external world.

Occupational Therapist (OT) – treatment focuses on helping people with a physical, sensory, or cognitive disability be as independent as possible in all areas of their lives. OT’s can help kids with various needs improve their cognitive, physical, sensory, and motor skills and enhance their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) – anxiety disorder in which people experience repetitive thoughts and behaviours that are upsetting to them.

ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) – a persistent behavioural pattern of angry or irritable mood, argumentative, defiant behaviour towards authority figures.

Oral Motor – A process involving the nerves and muscles in and around the mouth.

Paediatrician – Doctors who manage the health of your child, including physical, behavior, and mental health issues.

Paediatrician (Developmental) – Doctors who manage children with developmental problems, including the ongoing management of children with a disability who have complex multiple problems.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) – The diagnosis applied to children or adults who are on the autism spectrum  but did not fully meet the criteria for classic autism but were more affected than those with Asperger’s Syndrome. On 1 October 2013, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) updated the diagnostic label of Asperger’s Syndrome (along with Autistic Disorder and PDD-NOS) to be replaced by one umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Pica – an eating disorder involving eating things that are not food.

Receptive Language – the ability to understand words, sentences and meaning of what others say or what is read.

Regression: The loss of skills that have already been learned.

Repetitive Behaviour – can be stimming (see below) or can be the repetitive way they play for example lining up cars instead of pretend play. Children with autism like routine — with mealtimes, dressing, taking a bath, going to school at a certain time and by the same route.  Order and sameness lend some stability in a world of confusion. Can also take the form of a a persistent, intense preoccupation as explained in fixed interests and obsessions.

Rigid Thinking – find it difficult to consider alternatives or to accept when things are not as they expect.

Self Regulation – activities that help a person to manage their own behaviour and emotions.

Sensory Diet – A personalised activity plan for a child with SPD (see below) that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organised throughout the day.

Sensory Integration Therapy – provided by an OT. Aims to help kids with sensory processing issues (see below) by exposing them to sensory stimulation in a structured, repetitive way. The theory behind it is that over time, the brain will adapt and allow kids to process and react to sensations more efficiently.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)/Sensory Integration Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction: When the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information (stimuli) that comes through the following senses:

sight, smell,  taste, hearing, touch

 proprioception: is the sense of relative position of one’s parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement

vestibular: the system which regulates our sense of balance and orientation to the world.  The sense is what keeps the body upright while standing, sitting or walking and is primarily located in the inner ear.  This is why inner ear infections can result in problems with balance.

Sensory Hypersensitivity/Defensiveness (over reactivity) – being highly attuned or extremely sensitive to certain sounds, textures, tastes, and smells.

Sensory Hyposensitivity (under reactivity) – have an increased tolerance of pain or a constant need for sensory stimulation or sensory seeking.

Sensory Imbalance – can be a combination of hypo and hyper sensitive for example not feel pain and crave sensory input but cannot tolerate hair being brushed.

Sensory Overload – can range from shutting  down, aggression, running down or melt downs.

Sleep Dysfunction – trouble falling asleep, night waking, early rising are common with autism and can affect attention and learning. Medical issues such as obstructive sleep apnea, seizures or gastro esophageal reflux may cause sleep issues.

Social Skills – any skill facilitating interaction and communication with others. Social rules and relations are created, communicated, and changed in verbal and nonverbal ways. The process of learning these skills is called socialisation.

Social Story – A concept devised by Carol Gary in 1991. Most frequently associated with short, simple stories that provide a social learning tool that supports the safe and meaningful exchange of information between parents, professionals, and people with autism of all ages.

Spectrum – means there’s a range of how the symptoms impact people with autism.

Stimming/Stereotypies- Self-stimulatory behaviour or stereotypic movement is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects giving  sensory input which feels good.

Syndrome: A group of symptoms or traits that indicate a particular condition or disorder.

Theory of mind –  the ability to recognise various mental states (beliefs, intentions, knowledge, etc) in themselves and others, and to understand that others might have beliefs, desires and intentions that differ from their own.

Tourettes – is a common neuropsychiatric disorder with the onset in childhood, characterised by the presence of multiple physical (motor) tics and at least one vocal tic.

Visual Schedule – A visual representation of what is going to happen throughout the day or within a task or activity. Helpful for breaking down a task that has multiple steps to ensure the teaching and compliance of those steps. It is also helpful in decreasing anxiety and rigidity surrounding transitions by communicating when certain activities will occur throughout the day or part of the day.

Visuals Supports – Refers to using a picture or other visual item to communicate with a child who has difficulty understanding or using language.


Published by Sara Stythe

Hi my name is Sara Stythe and I am a mum of 3 beautiful girls. This is a place to share knowledge, resources and information I have learnt along the way on this unexpected journey with our unique youngest daughter. Isla is missing a tiny bit of her 2nd chromosome (2q23.1 Microdeletion Syndrome, recently known as MAND) causing autism, epilepsy and development delay. If you would like to receive my new blog posts by email you can subscribe. Thank you

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