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The Autism Spectrum Needed A Visual Explanation, So This Designer Created One

flickr / Ben Husmann | Michael McWatters

Thanks in no small part to things like Autism Awareness Month, you’re probably a lot more familiar with the neurodevelopmental disorder than, say, your parents were. But, with something as nuanced and challenging as autism, increased awareness doesn’t necessarily mean increased understanding.

Michael McWatters is the father of an autistic son; he’s also an award-winning designer (he’s part of the team responsible for the digital delivery of all those TED Talks you watch when you should be working) who was frustrated by the lack of a coherent and clinically accurate visual representation for the autism spectrum. As he explains on his site, after his son was diagnosed, McWatters “wanted to find out where he was on this so-called spectrum. Was he in the middle? Toward the more severe end? … I was asking the wrong question. I wanted to be able to plot his autism on a linear scale, but the autism spectrum isn’t linear at all.”

McWatters set about crafting a visual take on the spectrum that relies less on umbrellas and rainbows and more on the three commonly accepted axes of autism spectrum disorder: social impairment, communication impairment, and repetitive behavior. His graphic plots each axis moving away from a center point, with greater impairment further from the center. The result is a framework that can be used to explain an individual’s symptoms in way that acknowledges the complexity these intersecting axes create.

Though Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders no longer employs the term “Asperger’s,” it’s still a common way to refer to people on the autism spectrum whose difficulties are related more to social interactions and behaviors than communication and speech. McWatters was able to render it as a space within the larger area of autism.

McWatters considers his graphics a work-in-progress, and is revising them based on the new DSM definitions, as well as insights of his own, gathered from watching how his son’s condition has shifted and evolved over time. One of the impressive elements of his project is that it can map different changes over time because it’s not linear.

This means that the design he created, simple as it may be, is helpful in explaining more complicated or unusual forms of autism, which are sometimes referred to by researchers as “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified” and by parents as “atypical autism.” Failure to conform doesn’t need to precipitate and failure to understand.