Jargon Buster: Autism, ADHD, ADD, Aspergers….. what do all the terms mean?


Jargon Buster

Autism, ADHD, ADD, Aspergers….. what do all the terms mean?

By Alice Morrison

Special Correspondent, Hope So Bright

July 25th, 2016

Language can be a tricky subject, especially when it applies to the set of challenges that parents and children face when a child is diagnosed with one of the disorders on the autism spectrum. In this piece we will set out clear definitions to try and get past some of the difficult terminology that surrounds the subject.



(They all mean the same condition)

Autism is a lifelong condition. It affects all races, classes and intellectual abilities. It is a spectrum condition which means that it is extremely complex and affects everyone differently.  Autism is broadly defined as affecting three main areas (known as the “triad of impairments”): social communication, social interaction and social imagination. Everyone with autism is different.

Lots of people with autism lead independent lives,  but some need lifelong care. Others will need some degree of support depending on their stage in life.

One thing that is very important to note is that autism itself is not a learning disability – about half of all people with autism have average or above-average intelligence. But it is important to note that learning disabilities can accompany the disorder.

People with autism often have issues with sensory processing.  This means that their five senses (sight/hearing/taste/touch/smell) can be overly strong or too weak. It means they can also have trouble with balance.

People with autism may have difficulty with language and not be as fluent as others.



Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (AD(H)D)

Around one in ten children American children have been diagnosed with this condition. In simple terms, it means that a child is very, very lively – sometimes to the point of being manic, can’t sit still, can’t concentrate and may not be able to control their impulses.

If the child shows all these symptoms except hyperactivity then the condition is called ADD.

One of the problems of AD(H)D is that it can make it difficult for people who have it to get along with others which, in turn, can lead to anxiety and mental health issues.


Aspergers/ Asperger Syndrome

This is an autism spectrum disorder that affects the way a person communicates and relates to others. People with Aspergers can find it hard to talk to and interact with other people, lack imagination and can’t play creatively in the way that other children can, which makes social relationships hard. They tend to be very literal in their understanding.  They are often of average or above average intelligence and rarely have difficulties with speech.


Additional Learning Difficulties

Many people on the autistic spectrum will have extra learning difficulties which can be moderate (MLD), severe (SLD) or profound (PLD).


Atypical Autism

This is used to describe people who have variants on the symptoms of autism


Autistic Continuum

This is the same as Autism Spectrum


Autistic Savant

This describes some  people who have been diagnosed with autism and has normal to low abilities in general but is absolutely brilliant at one thing like music, math, art, etc.


Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder is a mental illness which involves swinging between very high, happy moods and very low, sad moods.  It often manifests in late adolescence or early adulthood. Bipolar Disorder may be undetected in people with autism because the symptoms are similar.


Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

Children with this rare condition develop normally until around the age of two and then have a sudden and dramatic loss of skills. It is similar to autism but often occurs later than autism and causes severe regression.  Children can lose their social, language, and movement skills.


Disorder of Attention, Motor Coordination and Perception (DAMP)

This is a condition where people have difficulties in concentration, movement and understanding,



This is a very broad term covering everything from a general feeling of sadness following a loss or difficulty to very severe feelings of despair. It can occur in people with autism at all ages and levels of ability. A family history of depression is a risk factor. Warning signs may be changes in behavior, apathy, tearfulness, sleep problems, aggression or self-injury.



Problems with reading, writing, spelling and often math. The problems are caused through difficulties in interpreting what one sees – for example, identifying letters and numbers, which might look blurred or distorted. It can also be hard to identify the sounds which make up words and match a spoken word with the written equivalent.


Dyspraxia and Motor Clumsiness  

Dyspraxia appears in childhood and causes significant difficulties in motor skills  (any action where you use your muscles to produce movement like writing) and development. People with dyspraxia often find it difficult to relate to others and to play. They also find it hard to follow instructions and may appear very slow to respond to information or requests.


Fragile X Syndrome

Fragile X Syndrome is the most common and identifiable cause of inherited learning disability. It is caused by an overly-long DNA sequence on the X chromosome which interferes with brain development. Girls are often less affected by Fragile X . Fragile X almost always causes language and speech delays and sufferers often repeat the word of others (echolalia) or have a poor rhythm in their speech or they speak in a disjointed way. They may also focus on just one subject. Feeding and sleeping may be disrupted. Many can’t focus on one thing by ignoring other stimuli and this can be confusing and cause great anxiety. A minority of people with Fragile X also have autism but many more simply share traits with those on the autism spectrum.


Kanner Syndrome/ Kanner’s Autism

Same as ‘classic autism’. Leo Kanner was the first to describe and name this condition.


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

This is when a person has recurring, obsessive thoughts that they cannot control. It can lead to repetitive actions and frequently recurring ideas that cause the person anxiety and distress.


Pathological Demand Avoidance Disorder (PDA)

The person who has this will only do things on their own terms and will actively resist commands or demands.



This is when people have an abnormal desire to eat things that are not food like dirt, grass, paint, or clay.



Rett Syndrome

Rett Syndrome is present at birth but may not appear until a baby is around one year of age. The child will typically lose skills, become clumsy in posture and gait, and start making repetitive hand movements. The condition is genetic but it is not hereditary and the mutation usually appears to occur spontaneously. The condition causes multiple physical and learning disabilities and leaves people entirely dependent throughout their lives. This syndrome very rarely appears in boys.


Sensory Issues

Many people with autism have problem processing the sights, sounds, and smells of daily life. They can be overwhelming.  Hypersensitivity means that a person is overly-sensitive and may see images as fragmented and distorted; hear sounds more loudly, and struggle to isolate particular sounds such as conversation; and feel textures and touching more acutely causing discomfort and pain.


Conversely, a person with autism might experience the opposite and be under-sensitive to sensory input. This could mean that they see images as blurred and dark, or that depth perception may be poor; they may hear sounds as muffled and dull or have trouble listening to particular sounds; they may feel textures and touch less than others and may therefore enjoy weighted items and deep pressure contact. They could also have a high tolerance for pain and are particularly at-risk for self-harming behaviors.



This is where a person shows behaviors such as staring at an object in motion or light, rocking back and forth, making repetitive noises, hand flapping or spinning around.


Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder (S(P)CD)/Pragmatic Language Impairment (PLI)/Semantic-Pragmatic Disorder(SPD)

The updated term Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder S(P)CD is a new addition to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) that is characterized by difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication.  Many with autism will have these overlapping communication challenges, the difference between autism and S(P)CD is that to be diagnosed with autism is to also have restricted and/or repetitive behaviors.  Not all people with social communication difficulties have autism.


Tourette Syndrome

Tourette Syndrome is when a person cannot control a series of verbal and physical tics. Often someone with Tourette Syndrome will swear or use bad language in inappropriate situations or move very violently and suddenly.


Williams Syndrome/Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WBS)

This is a  genetic disorder which is associated with distinctive facial features and learning difficulties. People with this diagnosis often display some of the same behaviors as those with autism, but they can also be very overly-friendly with others – including strangers – which is not an autistic behavior.