Glossary of Autism Terms and Definitions

Understanding Autism

Many people don't understand autism.

From continuing to believe that vaccines are linked with autism and that there really is an autism epidemic to pushing dangerous and unproven and unsafe autism treatments to cure autistic kids, many people have a lot to learn about autism.

This glossary of autism terms and definitions can provide some help to understanding autism and will hopefully change how you think about autism. For more information, this Autism Screening Quiz can help.


Many autistics repeat words and phrases they hear over and over again.
Many autistics repeat words and phrases they hear over and over again. Getty Images

Echolalia, repeating words and phrases over and over again, is typically thought of as being a feature of language development in autism. It's often a form of communication, but can also be a form of stimming.

In his book NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman defines echolalia as "the term of art for the way that autistic people sample the speech they hear around them and repurpose it for their own use."

Echolalia can be modified (mitigated) or exact (non-mitigated), referring to whether the repeated phrases are exactly the same or a little different than what was originally heard.

It includes immediate echolalia, in which someone simply repeats things right after hearing them.

This form of repetitive speech might also include delayed echolalia, which is the use of scripted language, such as:

  • dialogue from a movie or TV show
  • song lyrics
  • familiar phrases

The character in the movie Rain Man demonstrated several possible functions for echolalia. He repeats the Who's on First routine when he is agitated, to help calm himself down. And he seems to repeat other phrases, like "Are you taking any prescription medication?" to communicate with others.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) considers echolalia to be "a bridge to self-generated utterances." In the review article, "Examining the Echolalia Literature: Where Do Speech-Language Pathologists Stand?," Lillian N. Stiegler states that "Through collaborative consultation, we can discourage the use of abatement treatments to target echolalia as well as the practice of teaching scripted phrases that may inhibit the development of true symbolic communication."

Keep in mind that echolalia is not unique to autism, though. It also occurs in Tourette syndrome, can occur after some closed head injuries, and can also be a normal part of language development in some young children.


An autistic child receiving ABA.
An autistic child receiving ABA. Kim Gunkel/Getty Images

ABA or Applied Behavior Analysis is a type of therapy that is often recommended for autistic children.

Developed by Ole Ivar Løvaas in the 1960s, ABA includes focused and comprehensive interventions that address specific skills and behaviors of autistic children. 

According to the American Academy of the Pediatrics, "ABA methods are used to increase and maintain desirable adaptive behaviors, reduce interfering maladaptive behaviors or narrow the conditions under which they occur, teach new skills, and generalize behaviors to new environments or situations. "

ABA is thought to be effective by many people, especially if started when a child is young and used at least 25-40 hours a week (intensive ABA), leading to "substantial, sustained gains in IQ, language, academic performance, and adaptive behavior as well as some measures of social behavior."

ABA has its critics, though.

At the very least, autism therapies and behavioral health services beyond ABA should be considered for some autistic children and "ABA should not be viewed as the only or primary option for serving children on the autism spectrum."

Unfortunately, ABA is often the only therapy that insurance will pay for.


GFCF refers to the gluten-free, casein-free diet that some parents of autistic children try because they think they have a "leaky gut."

It is considered a biomedical, non-evidence based treatment that most autism experts say should be avoided. Not only is this fad diet expensive and time-consuming to follow, it can be dangerous as you try to eliminate both gluten (barley, rye, and wheat products) and casein (milk based dairy products) from the diets of autistic kids who might already be picky eaters.

Another good reason to avoid the GFCF diet is that research has actually proven that this bio-med "treatment" doesn't work.

Studies have shown that:

  • there are "no favorable effects of the GFCF diet on attention, sleep and stool patterns"
  • the "Current evidence for the efficacy of these diets is poor."
  • "Administrating gluten-casein to children with ASD for one week did not increase maladaptive behavior, gastrointestinal symptom severity or urinary I-FABP excretion."

So despite being pushed by many of the autism 'cure' organizations and anecdotal reports of improvement in some kids who are put on a GFCF diet, like most other special diets and bio-med treatments, research has shown that it has no benefit.


Autistics are neurologically different.
Autistics are neurologically different. Huntstock/Getty Images

Neurodiversity is a term first used by the autistic sociologist Judy Singer in her 1998 thesis "Odd People In: The Birth of Community Amongst People on the Autistic Spectrum: A personal exploration of a New Social Movement based on Neurological Diversity."

In 1999 she wrote "Why can't you be normal for once in your life? From a problem with no name to the emergence of a new category of difference," a chapter in the book Disability Discourse.

The chapter described the "rise of neurodiversity," and that people who were 'neurologically different' wanted "mutual understanding, clear boundaries, appreciation of our gifts, based on what we can do, not what we can't."

Neurotypical is a term that is similar to neurodiversity.


Repetitive hand motions can be a form of stimming for some autistic teens.
Repetitive hand motions can be a form of stimming for some autistic teens. Getty Images

Does your child like to rub the tag of his blanket when he goes to sleep? That's stimming. A form of self-stimulatory behavior that becomes part of a routine and helps them stay calm.

Stimming is very common among autistic people.

From rocking back and forth, spinning around, and hand flapping, etc. to chewing on straws or other objects, many autistic people have stims.

Since they are usually thought to be beneficial, many autism experts now think that stimming should not be stopped or suppressed.

Quite hands and loud hands are terms related to stimming.


Biomed refers to the biomedical treatments that some parents of autistic children, many of whom think that they are vaccine-injured, seek in the attempt to cure their children.

Biomed protocols include unproven and disproven treatments, such as:

  • chelation (heavy metal detoxification) therapy
  • restrictive diets - going gluten-free and casein-free, and eliminating high oxalate foods, high phenol foods, food colorings, artificial sweeteners, MSG, and other preservatives.
  • special diets - eating glutathione-inducing foods, specific carbohydrate diets, anti-inflammatory foods, and organic foods, and drinking camel's milk
  • trying a yeast free diet
  • trying the restrictive GAPS diet
  • taking vitamins/mineral supplements
  • taking high-dose vitamin and mineral supplements
  • secretin
  • gut treatments
  • taking digestive enzymes
  • taking amino acids
  • taking probiotics
  • methyl B12 shots
  • intravenous immune globulins
  • treating yeast overgrowth and yeast toxins (diagnosed not by culturing the yeast from blood or other body sites, but by measuring what they think could be "fungal metabolites" and a sign of yeast infections in your child's body)
  • antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial treatments
  • hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy (HBOT)

From theories about food allergies, a "leaky gut," or "toxic vaccines" causing autism or making symptoms worse, the bio-med community literally sells parents on cures for their children.

While some are just a waste of time and money, others are dangerous.

Some of the most dangerous, like chemical castration (Lupron), have fortunately fallen out of favor in the bio-med community. Other scary bio-med treatments, like chelation, bleach enemas (MMS), and stem cells are still around.

They also take time and money away from real and effective treatment options.

Once the domain of DAN! doctors (Defeat Autism Now), bio-med treatments are now pushed by doctors affiliated with the Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs (MAPS).

While also unproven, other non-bio-med treatments for autism that are often recommended by these same types of doctors can include auditory integration training, behavioral optometry, craniosacral manipulation, dolphin-assisted therapy, music therapy, and facilitated communication.


PDD is an acronym for pervasive developmental disorder, and it was introduced in DSM-III (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Infantile autism was a subcategory of PDD, along with atypical PDD and childhood onset PDD.

The criteria for PDD and PDD-NOS (not otherwise specified) changed between editions of the DSM, from DSM-III-R to DSM-IV, and it was finally dropped altogether from DSM-5.


A mother helping her autistic son with his homework.
A mother helping her autistic son with his homework. Kim Gunkel/Getty Images

FAPE is an abbreviation for free and appropriate education.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that "All qualified persons with disabilities within the jurisdiction of a school district are entitled to a free appropriate public education."

Children who are eligible for a FAPE include those with disabilities that are listed in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). And it is important to note that it wasn't until 1990 that autism was included as a separate disability category in IDEA, making it a little easier to get services.


Lining up cars instead of driving them can be an early sign of autism.
The M-CHAT-R can help screen toddlers for early signs of autism. Linda Epstein/Getty Images

The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) is a tool that pediatricians often use to screen toddlers for autism.

The latest, revised version (M-CHAT-R) includes 20 questions that ask about how a child usually behaves. Depending on the answers, children are placed in a low-risk, medium-risk, or high-risk for autism category.

High-risk children should be immediately referred for a diagnostic evaluation and to see if they qualify for early intervention. Those in the medium-risk category might simply have the checklist repeated using the M-CHAT-R Follow-Up questions.

Although other screening tools and autism checklists are available, the M-CHAT-R is a great way for pediatricians and parents to keep up with the latest recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics to screen all children for autism at 18 and 24 months.

Identity-First Language

An autistic woman in her home office.
Identity-first or person-first language? Which should you use?. Getty Images

Identity-first language is another way of thinking about and talking about autistic children and adults. It contrasts with person-first language.

Examples of each include:

  • Identity-first language - autistic child
  • Person-first language - child with autism

Although the American Psychological Association promotes the use of person-first language, many others advocate for the use of identity-first language.

Since there is not a clear cut answer on which terminology to use in any community, it is likely best to ask people how they would like to be described if you are in doubt.

Understanding Autism

There are many myths and misconceptions about autism. Learning more about autism terms can help you better understand autism, including the latest research and advice from experts.

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