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A Visual Representation of the Autism Spectrum

The story of autism spectrum disorder has always been told largely through statistics. Professionals speak of the costs to families of autistic children, the earliest age for diagnoses, and the percentage of children who develop the disorder. Many people have heard the term autism but don’t really know what it means because the statistics can’t fully convey what it means to be autistic.

Autism spectrum disorder is difficult to explain and grasp because it’s a very wide spectrum. According to psychologist Kathleen Platzman, “We need an educational model wide enough to take in the whole spectrum. That means it’s going to have to be a fairly broad model.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) proposes three levels of severity for autism spectrum disorder, which is meant to describe its impact on everyday functioning. Individuals who require “very substantial support” are rated level 3; those who require “substantial support” are rated level 2; and those who require “support” are rated level 1. While these ratings provide important information, they don’t do a lot to help visualize the complexities of the disorder.

Michael McWatters is a designer and UX Architect at TED, the organization responsible for TED Talks and various other initiatives. He’s also the father of a boy with autism spectrum disorder. When his son was diagnosed, McWatters wanted to know where he fell on the spectrum, but quickly became frustrated by the lack of an accurate visual representation of the disorder. He had envisioned the spectrum as a straight line that looks something like this:

Autism image

Was his son’s condition mild, severe, or somewhere in between? It seemed overly simplistic. But then McWatters had a revelation—the spectrum isn’t a single line or flat continuum at all! So he decided to create his own diagram, basing his visualization on the three generally accepted axes for the disorder: social, communication, and behavioral.

autism-disorder1 (1)

In his visualization, the greater the impairment on any of the three axes, the further the point moves away from the center. This visualization of the symptoms acknowledges the dimensionality of the disorder in a way a simple spectrum line cannot.

We had the opportunity to speak with McWatters. He indicated that this is just the beginning of his efforts and that he views this as an experimental project. He is currently working with two leading autism researchers to revise his visualization to align more closely with DSM-5 and hopes to find a way to demonstrate both the strengths and deficits associated with autism.

For Michael McWatters, autism spectrum disorder can’t be reduced to statistics and percentages—it’s deeply personal. “People have responded very positively to this visualization,” he says, “and I think it’s because it not only provides a more accurate view of autism, it demonstrates just how unique each person on the spectrum is.”

You can learn more about Michael and his son on his Web site, ASDDad. We’re looking forward to his new discoveries and the graphic representation that he will create as a result.

What do you think? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave your comments below.

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