This glossary is a collection of essential vocabulary and terms that I am asked to define frequently. If there is a word or phrase you believe should be added, please contact me with any suggestions.
From the Greek “lexis” meaning “word,” and “thumos” meaning “soul”/”heart”/”mind.” Impaired ability to identify and describe emotions. This trait is often comorbid with a number of psychiatric diagnoses, such as autism, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia. The reduced emotional perception often presents in a number of ways, e.g., not realizing that bodily discomfort is due to an emotional state; sensing and describing emotions in vague categories, with little to no specificity; and a simplification of emotions perceived in others that interferes with cognitive empathy. For example, “tired,” “guilty,” “frustrated,” “anxious,” and “bored” may all look and/or feel like “sad.”
From the Greek “allos” meaning “other.” Non-autistic. A person can be both allistic and neuroatypical (e.g., a person with ADHD who doesn’t meet the criteria for ASD).
“Autistic Parent Heavily in Denial.” A phrase coined by autistic author and advocate
Dr. Stephen M. Shore to describe parents of autistic children who themselves display
autism traits, yet do not acknowledge this and/or do not identify with the autism/
Asperger’s label. Also occasionally used to describe parents who refuse to accept their
child’s autistic identity.
\ăs-pər-gərs\ (also: \âs-pər-gərs\ or \ăs-pər-jərs\)
No longer a diagnosis. Previously was a subtype within the autism spectrum diagnosis, marked by hyperlexia (early language development), sometimes called the “little professor” syndrome. People with this diagnosis often refer to themselves as “aspies.” First discovered and studied by Hans Asperger. While Leo Kanner was studying autism in America, Asperger was conducting his work under the Nazi regime, and went to great lengths to protect the so-called ‘abnormal’ children with whom he worked, couching them in “‘Nazi-style’ vocabulary.” This could explain why Asperger put more emphasis on the intelligence and savant-like skills of his patients than other researchers working with autistic children; his overseers were actively committing genocide against the disabled.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
From the Greek “auto” meaning “self.” ASD is the umbrella diagnosis for all autistic-like conditions. ASD includes Autistic Disorder (299.00), Asperger’s Disorder (299.80), Rett’s Disorder (299.80), Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (299.10), PDD-NOS (299.80). Asperger’s is separated from Autism because it is defined as having no significant language delays, and no delays in areas like self-help skills and adaptive behaviors. Personally, I feel that the separation is meaningless, because I have yet to meet someone with an Asperger’s diagnosis (myself included) without issues in self-care and adaptive behaviors. Really, the only significant differences is that people who are better able to “pass” as neurotypical receive this diagnosis, because their self-care and adaptive struggles are less obvious. Rett’s Disorder is marked by normal development, followed by a sudden regression (loss of motor, social, and language skills; emergence of autistic hand stimming) between 5 and 30 months of age. In contrast, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder is defined by the regression happening later in childhood, between the ages of 2 and 10. A diagnosis of PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) is given when a patient displays ASD-like traits but does not meet the criteria for any of the above diagnoses, due to factors like atypical and/or sub-threshold symptom presentation.
The brain’s ability to pull together details to create a larger concept. There is a cognitive theory of autistic processing called Weak Central Coherence Theory that serves to explain why autistic people have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees, so to speak. The autistic brain sees the world in pieces, instead of integrating these details into a “big picture.” Applies in abstract cognition, as well as sensory processing (seeing a face vs seeing eyes, nose, mouth, etc). This is why autistic people tend to be very skilled at detail-oriented activities, yet struggle with large, overarching conceptual tasks. For example, I struggle with maps, and giving directions, because to me a journey is a series of unique, separate actions, and for all practical purposes I am incapable of combining these steps into a smooth sequence. Honestly, I did not realize that anyone else didn’t think this way until I started reading about autism. Post-diagnosis, I realized that this is why allistic people always seem to give me nonsensical and impractical directions (“Get on [highway x] and go north for about 15 minutes, then take [highway y] for another hour, and you’re there!”). I take ages to give directions, because I think of everything in discrete pieces–My version would be: “If you’re starting from [location], turn left, then turn right at the stop sign. Keep going on that road—you’ll pass the first traffic light, then a four-way stop—when you get to the really big traffic light intersection, go straight—but straight means you have to go sort of to the right; between the Bank of America and the TD bank!—and go all the way to the bottom of the big hill…” And so on. Difficulty with central coherence is also the reason why I have such a hard time with concision when writing these types of descriptions!
From the Greek “echo” meaning “repeat” and “laliá” meaning “speech.” The repetition of words or sounds made by another person (“palilalia” refers to repeating one’s own sounds). Echolalia is characterized as either immediate (e.g., answering “Do you want spaghetti for dinner,” with “spaghetti for dinner”) or delayed (e.g., repeating a phrase heard in a TV commercial—”got milk?”—to ask for a glass of milk). Almost all young children engage in echolalic and palilalic speech, as it’s a language-learning tool. Autistics often use echolalia as a stim, or as a means of communication when cognitively choosing words to express an abstract concept is too challenging. A word or phrase that was learned in a certain emotional or conceptual context can be brought up later as delayed echolalia and applied in a similar situation.
“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously
experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or
present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in
an objectively explicit manner.” (—Merriam-Webster)
Can be broken into two major subcategories:
Also called “Theory of Mind.” The ability to understand another’s perspective
or mental state. Cognitive empathy has two components: perspective taking
(the inclination to spontaneously adopt other’s perspectives) and fantasy (the
inclination to identify with fictional characters). Autistic people tend to
naturally lack the former, failing to spontaneously consider the mental states of
others. While many autistics use declarative memory to learn how to adopt
other’s perspectives, this still takes conscious consideration, and is not
effortless or spontaneous. Interestingly, many autistics (especially women)
have little to no trouble with the fantasy element of cognitive empathy, and
often become intensely devoted to fandoms and fictional characters with
which they identify.
Also called “Emotional Empathy.” The ability to respond to another’s mental
state (“emotional contagion”) with an appropriate emotion. Emotional
empathy has two components: empathetic concern (sympathy and
compassion), and personal distress (self-centered feelings of discomfort and
anxiety in response to another’s suffering). Scientific study empathy and
autism indicates that autistic people have a normal capacity for emotional
empathy, as long as the cognitive empathy deficit is circumvented (the
perspective of the other is explicitly communicated). In addition, autistics
display a heightened, often overpowering capacity for personal distress
empathy. While this is normal in infants, typically developing children mature
past this stage around age two, and begin to respond with “other-oriented”
instinctual comforting behaviors.
The man in the machine; tied to central coherence. The realm of the frontal lobe. This refers to the brain’s ability to plan, organize, and execute tasks. Executive functioning effects more than just focusing on homework and keeping your bedroom clean. It includes but is not limited to: working memory, cognitive flexibility (cognitively processing change), and inhibitory control. This encompasses things like managing time, paying attention, switching focus, remembering and prioritizing details, multitasking, thinking “outside the box,” avoiding saying and doing “the wrong thing,” and controlling runaway emotions. Here’s a nifty comic explaining executive functioning.
The autistic difficulty with starting new tasks (mental or physical), as well as stopping
already started tasks. Sometimes described as a difficulty with figuratively “changing
gears.” A combination of attention shifting and motor planning difficulties. Unrelated
to motivation, desire, or choice (i.e., wanting to do something doesn’t necessarily make it easier). Closely linked with perseveration.
A portmanteau of “neurological diversity.” A philosophy of psychiatry and disability
that claims a number of congenital neurological conditions (or, “neurotypes”) are the
result of normal human genetic variation, and deserve the same recognition afforded
to ethnic, sexual, and gender identities. A counter to the prevailing medical view that
neurological diversity is inherently pathological, and that the majority neurotype is
fundamentally superior or more natural. Traditionally pro-accommodation and anti-
eugenics, suggesting that many neurominorities’ disabilities result from the
environment, attitude, and expectations of the dominant culture.
Historically used to describe non-autistic individuals, now refers any person who does
not meet the criteria for a typically pathologized neurotype, such as autism, dyslexia,
dyspraxia, bipolar, or ADHD. The historical definition has been taken up by the
terms “typically developing” (in scientific literature) and “allistic” (in the public sphere).
The repetition of an action, thought, or response, despite the absence or cessation of a
prompting stimulus; being “stuck in a rut.” Not to be confused with stimming. Cognitive perseveration, or hyperfocus, is common to both autism and
ADHD. Hyperfocus perseveration displays itself in a number of ways, most famous
being the tendency towards obsession and continually returning to particular lines of
thought, leading to the development of expert “special interests” in ADHD and
especially autism. Both cognitive and motor perseveration play a role in the positive
phase of autistic inertia—e.g., spending days on the research phase of an academic
paper without starting the writing process; climbing out of a pool and jumping back in
again over and over.
The use of pre-formatted “scripts” to respond to social situations. Technically a subtype of echolalia, scripting is born of echolalic speech. Scripting can refer to an autistic kid reciting an entire scene from his favorite movie, and this is what most allistic parents think of when they hear the term. It’s sometimes seen as a bad thing, although it is an essential element of developing functional language. Usually, a script will be an automatic response to a certain prompt, to help carry a person through social situations—e.g., “Good, you?” as an automatic response to hearing “How are you?” A script can also be a predetermined phrase in which words can be substituted (a good overview of how this works can be found here). Scripting is a type of social autopilot, and becomes especially useful for stressful situations. The downside of scripting is that it can be difficult to manually override the autopilot. A universal example of non-functional scripting is accidentally replying “Thanks, you too!” when a movie theater employee tells you to enjoy your movie.
Short for “self-stimulation.” Also called stereotypy. Repetitive, rhythmic movement,
sound, or manipulation of objects that stimulates one or more senses in a regulated
manner. Not to be confused with the nonrhythmic, sudden and unregulated tics of
Tourette syndrome. While everyone stims, autistic people stim far more frequently
than their allistic and neurotypical counterparts, and in often unique ways.
Stimming is a healthy form of self-regulation, and is especially important for those
with sensory processing differences. Stimming narrows the figurative sensory
aperture, helping the hypersensitive drown out overwhelming input, and keeping the
hyposensitive alert and focused. Learning how to stim in safe, efficient ways is an
essential skill for maintaining health and happiness. Here is my article about stimming, and here is my article about unhealthy stimming.