The Spectrum – Part 3 – using the phrase `on the spectrum`

It is well known that autism is a spectrum. But what isn’t talked about much is what a spectrum itself actually is, and why autism is referred to as a spectrum. It could be argued that the word spectrum is either being misused or misunderstood. The article below will look at the word`s original meaning, and how much of this still remains in use today.

The word spectrum has a scientific origin which was originally used to discuss the colours of the rainbow. The reason for this being that no colour was any more significant or meaningful to those investigating the rainbow than any other. So they can’t be categorised on a scale. Instead they were referred to as a spectrum. The meaning being a series of things that relate to one another, and are grouped together under the same, overall banner. There is reference to word spectrum being used up to four hundred years ago, and of course autism was only discovered in the last century. When more became known about autism people began to recognise that it presented differently in different people. And then it was difficult to actually say `This is autism, ` and then give an example of one person who could be said to represent every autistic individual. So the word spectrum works when used in relation to autism. But over the last few years it could be argued that the definition has become slightly twisted. The whole point of a spectrum is that it is has broad range of content, not that there are extreme ends. A spectrum in the true sense of the word isn’t actually organised. A person couldn’t fall on any particular point on the spectrum, they would just be seen as being a part of the overall spectrum.

The word spectrum has been used to refer to things such as politics, and this has slightly confused, and changed the meaning. Politics again isn’t actually a spectrum. There are extremes at either end, for example the far right and the far left. A spectrum, as stated before, is just a collection of things that are studied or categorised under the same banner. If somebody was looking at politicians they would be able to do things such as line them up in order of who has the most extreme views, to who has the least extreme views on a particular subject. This is fine, but not what a spectrum originally was. A spectrum really is just a way of saying these things are all here. They all relate in some way to one another, and if you are looking at one you might need to look at the rest as well. A spectrum isn’t a league table, and somebody can`t be at the top or bottom of it.

The misuse of the word is not really done with any negative intentions. And it is true that language does change and evolve over time. But it is well worth remembering the original meaning of the word spectrum when using it in relation to autism

  • Lenny Schafer says:

    This should help define “spectrum” more. Everyone on the autism spectrum is disabled, including the highest functioning person. Disability is the common denominator for the disorder. Further misapplied labeling is the term “high functioning autism”. This term is misleading in that it implies that there is a distinct class from the rest of the spectrum. There is no clinical definition for HF autism. It is not a scientific term. Of course, there are higher functioning and lower functioning places on the spectrum, but the basic common denominator still exists: all are disabled to varying degrees. People on the spectrum are not measured against each other, high, middle or low. The spectrum is not a class system.

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