Autism: Charting the Spectrum

From passivity to aggression, from a lack of speech to a torrent of words


The autistic spectrum spans many neurological challenges and behaviors but can be broken down into four main categories. Amy Davis, a Pasadena psychologist whose focus is autism evaluation and therapy, gives examples

Severe: At age 4 Kristina is never without her two Beanie Baby hippos. She bounces them in front of her eyes and carefully observes them from every angle. Kristina seeks out hugs from her parents and can say one-syllable approximations of their names but becomes aggressive when her little brother gets attention. She’s anxious around other kids, and loud noises make her unravel. She screams when her mother takes her to the store.

Moderate: José, 9, runs around the yard with his sisters but never talks to them. He plays with trains alone or with anyone who will observe his strict routine. After his morning special-ed class, he joins a mainstream class where a designated adult helps him follow instructions and calm down when overstimulated.

Mild: The teacher in 6-year-old Joshua’s mainstream kindergarten works with Josh’s family and therapists to tackle the self-control problems that can arise. Josh often asks for his friends Matt and Shayla to come over. They play video games or shoot a basketball, with Josh’s mom nearby in case he has one of his frequent tantrums.

Asperger’s syndrome: Despite his poor handwriting, 11-year-old Max gets mostly As and Bs. Lacking coordination and energy, he’s terrible at sports, and he’s unable to figure out how to make friends. At school he talks constantly about being excluded. In his free time he works on elaborate itineraries for imaginary family vacations.