A free online resource developed to support the inclusion of autistic learners in Scottish Early Learning and Childcare settings, Primary and Secondary schools.

Understanding Autism - Terminology

What language should we use to describe autism and autistic people?

It is important to explain the choice of language and terminology used in the Autism Toolbox because the complex nature of autism gives rise to a range of personal and professional perspectives. Although this means that it is not easy to find a common language that reflects the views of the various groups, what we have tried to do is reflect the diversity of the community in a positive way. 

Autism as an identity

Many different terms are used to describe autism and there is no agreement within the community of autistic people, parents and their broader support network or the wider community on the best term to use. 

Within the wider community there seems to be most consensus for the terms ‘autism’ and also ‘on the autism spectrum’. 

Within the autism community many autistic people prefer the use of the term autistic for example ‘autistic adult’ and the concept of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been rejected by some with autism community.  Select the link to view a blog which explores terminology https://dart.ed.ac.uk/autism-language

Within the education community  it is unusual to use a term which defines a diagnosis or identification before the words learner, child or young person; for example, we would not encourage the term a ‘physically or mentally disabled learner’ we would instead encourage the learner to be understood as an individual first before any differences or difficulties. For example, ‘a child with autism’, however, some people within the autistic community have requested the term autistic person. This toolbox will use the term autistic learner or autistic children.   

If the child, young person or family express a preference for a particular term, this should be respected.

The word spectrum emphasises the variation amongst people with autism, with individuals having a unique pattern of strengths and difficulties. People on the autism spectrum have a range of intellectual abilities and will present differently depending on developmental stage and sex. People on the autism spectrum will have a range of strengths and challenges and some will require a high level of need for support, while others will have more subtle difficulties that may still require support. People on the autism spectrum will also have individual differences in the range of their strengths and talents.

Two main diagnostic manuals are used in the UK as recommended in the SIGN Guidelines 145. One of these is DSM-5 and in 2013 in the latest addition it moved away from a list of subtypes of autism (such as Asperger Syndrome) to one diagnosis called autistic spectrum disorder. The other main manual used in the UK, ICD-10 is due to be updated in 2019 and is expected to be similar to the latest DSM manual.

In the past few decades a number of diagnostic labels have been used by professionals as different diagnostic manuals and tools have been used to identify if someone has autism. 

These terms  historically included Classic Autism, Kanner Autism, Asperger Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.

Further diagnostic information can be found in the 'Assessing and Monitoring' section.

Further Professional Development

Select here to access the Professional Reflection and Planning Tool (Understanding Autism) for this section.

Further resources can be found in the Professional Development section.