WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism is an unusual neurological variation that affects how people perceive, think about, and interpret the world around them: This neurological variation happens along a "spectrum" - like a rainbow - ranging from very mild to very severe in its effects upon sensory processing, behavior, ability/disability. - Autism is characterized by difficulty communicating, intense/obsessive interests, unusual body mannerisms, lack of typical social/emotional reciprocity. - Autism occurs at the level of of basic cognitive function, i.e. how the brain works, not personality (autistic people can have vastly different personalities.)
HOW IS IT REGARDED BY PSYCHIATRISTS AND MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS?
Autism is currently considered by psychiatrists to be a "mental disorder". It is listed in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM IV), the diagnostic handbook for mental health professionals used by clinicians and researchers worldwide. This manual lists 5 subtypes: (1) Autistic Disorder (2) Aspergers Disorder, (3) Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified - Including Atypical Autism (4) Rett's Disorder (5) Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. You can ead the DSM-IV Diagnostic criteria for Pervasive Developmental Disorders as determined by the American Psychiatric Association, as reprinted on the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, here. - However, these days, "autistic-rights" organizations - along with a number of prominent scientists - are challenging the view that it is a "mental disorder". Instead, they argue that it is a neurological "difference" that should be regarded as a naturally occurring genetic variation, like left-handedness or homosexuality. (In the past, homosexuality was also included in the DSM handbook and regarded as a "disorder", but has since been removed.)
RESPECTFUL, POLITICALLY-CORRECT LANGUAGE
People do not "suffer from" autism: it is not a physical disease that causes pain, nor does it cause mental anguish. Many autistic people/families/disability organizations profoundly resent catastrophizing.this condition and/or positioning people as victims. The appropriate language is neutrally descriptive language - either Mary Smith "is autisic" or Mary Smith "has autism". (Anti-cure "autistic-rights" organizations prefer "is autistic" because this language implies that autism is part of an individual's basic identity as a human being - something that is "hardwired", that cannot be removed/modified/changed. Conversely, many parents and cure-focused lobby groups prefer "has autism" precisely because they repudiate this idea.)
CORRECT USE OF TERMS
The terms "low-functioning/"high-functioning" , applied to autism, refer scientifically strictly to level of intelligence. These terms have nothing whatsoever to do with how an individual performs within society and navigates the world around them.
"AUTISTIC RIGHTS" MOVEMENT
The autistic rights movement began in the early 90's when a handful of autistic people formed an organization called "Autism Network International" to represent their point of view for themselves. It has been gathering steam ever since. Today, it is thriving. The internet has enabled many autistic people to meet in cyberspace, socialize, share ideas, and - arguably - to form a "culture". There are hundreds of websites, lobby groups, organizations, and countless sites that sell up-beat t-shirts and bumperstickers with messages like "I Am Not a Puzzle, I Am a Person", "Autism is not a Tragedy, Ignorance is the Tragedy" "Autism Isn't Contagious but my Smile Is", "FREEZE! I have Autism and I'm Not Afraid to Use It!"