Dictionary of Terms

A guide to important names, terms, and acronyms appearing in autism literature.

When compiling this guide, I decided to list an acronym if it is more commonly used than the full phrase for which it stands. This guide is not a dictionary, though it should help most visitors read academic literature about autism. I aimed to create short, but useful listings. For longer definitions, you will need to look elsewhere.


Not everyone will agree with the definitions I offer, reflecting some of the debates within the autism community.

[diag] = diagnostic / medical
[law] = legal / regulatory agency
[org] = organization
[tt] = treatment / therapy
- A -

ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) - [tt] intensive one-on-one therapy based on a system of incentives and rewards. As of 2007, the most common therapy for severe autism. Associated with O. Ivar Lovaas

ADD / ADHD (Attention Deficit [Hyperactivity] Disorder) - [diag] sometimes comorbid with autism spectrum disorders; some individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome are initially diagnosed with ADHD

APA (American Psychiatric Association) - [org] professional organization for psychiatrists in the United States

ASA (Autism Society of America) - [org] the largest and one of the best known autism advocacy organization in the United States. visit autism-society.org

ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) - [diag] any of a group of disorders / personality types defined by specific characteristics in the DSM or ICD.

AS or AD (Asperger’s Syndrome / Disorder) - [diag] a mild autism spectrum disorder, usually without language impairment but with mild to extreme social difficulties

Asperger, Hans - one of the first to describe mild forms of autism

assessment - [diag] similar to a diagnosis; an evaluation to determine is an individual has a specific condition. Some schools offer “assessments” that are not the same as diagnoses.

ASQ (Autism Screening Questionnaire) - [diag]

ASSQ (Asperger’s Syndrome Screening Questionnaire) - [diag]

Auditory Processing Disorder - [diag] often comorbid with autism spectrum disorders; often expressed as a sensitivity to sounds, especially background noises, but can also be an inability to focus on sounds

Autism Speaks - [org] advocacy organization

- B -

Bettelheim, Bruno - author of The Empty Fortress, responsible for promoting the “refrigerator mother” theory of autism. Discredited as a theorist and as a care provider by biographer Richard Pollak.

- C -

CAP (Comprehensive Autism Planning System) - [tt] an education plan for an autistic individual, with an emphasis on predictability

CARS (Childhood Autism Rating Scale) - [diag]

Central Coherence Theory - the ability to interpret a situation quickly

CLE (College Living Experience) - specialized support at a college or university for ASD students; promotes independence from parents and the ability to adapt to new settings

comorbidity - [diag] two or more conditions being diagnosed as co-existing; autism is often comorbid with other physical and psychological conditions

Cure Autism Now (CAN) - [org] advocacy organization

- D -

diagnosis - [tt] a determination by a medical or mental health professional that one has a specific condition, disorder, or disease

DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the APA) - [diag] guide used by mental health professionals to evaluate individuals.

- E -

eligibility - [law] legal term indicating an individual qualifies for special services mandated by law; might require a diagnosis, but not always

Enactive Mind - the ability to enact, recreate, perceptions and experiences

- F -

Facilitated Communication (FC) - [tt] the use of an assistant to help a non-verbal individual communicate, usually with the use of a keyboard or chart of letters; discredited. Independent tests consistently suggest the facilitator leads the movements and “communication.” Eye-tracking and other tests have found the non-verbal individual often isn’t looking at the chart or keyboard.

Fombonne, Eric - epidemiologist responsible for peer-reviewed statistical measures of rates of autism

- G -

GFCF (Gluten Free, Casein Free Diet) - [tt] diet some suggest reduces the symptoms of autism; scientific literature on the topic is minimal and inconclusive

Grandin, Temple - professor of animal behavior known for her autobiographical books on autism

- H -

HFA (High-Functioning Autism) - [diag] generally used to describe autistic individuals with significant social and linguistic impairments, but roughly of average intelligence

hidden curriculum - the social lessons learned in academic settings; social values conveyed by teachers and other students

- I -

ICD (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems) - [diag] see ICD Web Site and ICD-10 Online

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1975) - [law]

IDEIA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004) - [law]

IEP (Individualized Education Plan/Program) - [law]

IQ (Intelligence Quotient) - [diag] number used to predict the ability to learn, often indicative of pattern recognition skills

- K -

Kanner, Leo - one of the first to document autism and describe it as a unique disorder or range of disorders

- L -

Lovaas, O. Ivar - leading proponent of ABA therapy methods

- M -

MAPS (Magill Action Planning System) - [tt]

mental retardation - [diag] often comorbid with classical autism; generally diagnosed when IQ is estimated to be 65 or lower on a 100-normed scale; current estimates are that half of ASD individuals have reduced intellectual abilities

MIND (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) - institute at the University of California, Davis, dedicated to researching autism and developmental disorders

- N -

NIMH (National Institute for Mental Health)

- O -

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) - [diag] sometimes comorbid with autism spectrum disorders, but clinicians differ on if this is autism resembling OCD or if OCD exists apart from the autism symptoms

OSEP (Office of Special Education Programs) - [law] U.S. Dept. of Education office created to oversee special education

OSERS (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services) - [law] U.S. Dept. of Education office

- P -

PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) - [tt]

PCP (Person-Centered Planning) - [tt]

PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified) - [diag] disorders associated with autism; range from severe to similar to Asperger’s Syndrome

PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) - [tt] use of photo or illustration flashcards to communicate

PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) - [diag]

- R -

RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) - [diag] a failure to form emotional attachments to primary care givers by five years of age; should not be confused with developmental disorders [ICD-10 94.1 and 94.2; DSM-IV 313.89]

RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) - [tt]

Rett’s Disorder - [diag] disorder caused by mutations in the gene MECP2 located on the X chromosome; almost exclusively affects girls, as male fetuses with the disorder rarely survive to term. Often included in texts as an autism spectrum disorder [ICD-10 84.2]

Rimland, Bernard - author of early text on autism, Autism: Syndrome and Implications for Neural Theory of Behavior

- S -

Sensory Integration Therapy - [tt] therapy meant to reduce sensitivity to external stimuli

SIB (Self-Injurious Behavior) - ranges from minor slapping of hands against the body to serious harm to the self

social cognition - the ability to understand social contexts and respond to them appropriately; autistic individuals demonstrate impaired social cognition

SWPBS (School-Wide Postive Behavior Supports) - [tt]

- T -

Theory of Mind (ToM) - ability to understand and interpret the actions of others; a theory of empathy

- V -

Verbal Behavior Intervention - [tt]

- W -

Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) - [diag]

Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) - [diag]

WHO (World Health Organization) - [diag] WHO Online

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