The Autism Spectrum

Autism Spectrum Disorder is becoming increasingly common in the United States, but it is still often misunderstood. In this week’s episode of Taboo: Strange Behaviors, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher live with Autism and must manage life in a world that finds their behavior bizarre. Working together they are trying to help others who share their disease find ways to live fuller lives.

Autism is diagnosed according to guidelines listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) vary, but in general, they fall into three areas:

  • Social impairment
  • Communication difficulties
  • Repetitive and stereotyped behaviors.

At least a million children and adults have a diagnosis of autism or a related disorder, like Asperger syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified. The degree to which these different disorders affect people as adults can vary greatly. Currently the guide defines five disor­ders, sometimes called pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs), as ASD:

Rett’s Syndrome

Rett’s syndrome is a rare form of ASD and was discovered in 1966 by Austrian Dr. Andreas Rett. It almost exclusively affects girls. While there are subtle signs of the disease, children have normal early growth and development, but between 6 to 18 months there is a slowing of development. Children exhibit a loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability. Children suffer with Rett’s have a life expectancy of around 40 years. Scientists believe that the disease is not inherited from the parents, but is instead caused by a random genetic mutation.  Rett syndrome is estimated to affect one in every 10,000 to 15,000 girls born worldwide.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

CDD is characterized by at least two years of normal development where the child has little or no symptoms. Then from anywhere between the ages of three and ten years-old, the child begins to lose the skills he or she has developed. Language and social skills may then degenerate rapidly over the course of six to nine months. The child may lose bladder and bowel control and develop seizures. He or she will also reject social interaction with adults and other children, be prone to repetitive behavior and have trouble moving from one activity to the next. Children who suffer from CDD do not regain the skills they have lost. About 1 in 100,000 children are thought to have CDD.

Autistic Disorder (Classic Autism)

Classic Autism the most severe form of autism and individuals who have it exhibit problems communicating and relating to others. They can be hypersensitive to certain sounds, colors and textures as well as to changes in routine. Those with CDD may engage in rituals to stay calm, such as eating the same foods or performing the same tasks at the same time every day. Autistic people show the three symptoms in varying degrees and the disease can be very different from individual to individual.

Asperger’s disorder (Asperger syndrome)

A child with Asperger Syndrome (AS) usually show symptoms by his or her third birthday, and some children may exhibit symptoms as early as infancy.  Unlike those with Autism, individuals with AS retain their early language skills.  Studies of children with AS suggest that their problems with socialization and communication continue into adulthood. Individuals with AS may exhibit some symptoms of autism such as the need for strict routines, inability to master social interactions and communication, and odd repetitive behaviors. The level of these symptoms vary greatly from one individual to the next.

Although diagnosed mainly in children, AS is more frequently being diagnosed in adults who seek medical help for mental health conditions such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). No studies have yet been conducted to determine the incidence of AS in adult populations, but experts in population studies estimate that two to six out of every 1,000 children are afflicted with AS.

Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

A child diagnosed with PDD-NOS has significant challenges in social and language development, but the symptoms  of PPD-NOS, symptoms don’t fall neatly into one of the other categories of Autism Spectrum Disorder or do not include all of the described symptoms and may be very mild. No two individuals with PDD-NOS are alike. Each can have completely different strengths and challenges.

People living with the taboo of Autism are learning to overcome their challenges and the common misunderstanding that those with Autism are unable to engage in life. Tracy Thresher says, “It’s a common misunderstanding that we are not thinking people, acting without any idea of what’s going on around us and not wanting to get involved or jumping on the train of life.” Tracy and Larry prove that this is far from the truth! Tune in to Taboo: Strange Behaviors on Sunday June 25 at 10 et/pt.


  1. hank haney
    the Dee
    June 25, 2012, 7:47 am

    Puh-leeze! In “Strange Behavior” you showed 2 autistic gentlemen “communicating” with by typing. Why did you only show the “facilitators” holding the autistic men by the arm as they typed a few times? The “facilitators” are there for every keystroke, aren’t they? What a load of bunk! I watched a couple episodes of Taboo last night … but never again. You lost me with your completely unbalanced reporting of the subject. I wouldn’t be able to watch without thinking you’re trying to sell me snake oil. Good-bye!

  2. matt
    June 26, 2012, 8:33 pm

    NatGeo, if i could only have one channel that didnt supply daily/current news this would be my pick.
    I just saw Taboo which highlighted friends Larry and Tracy both of whom are autistic. With inspiring stories of people like these two, it saddens me that a far greater number of people would rather watch guys scream at each other while fishing or whatever other silly job someone does that doesnt need to be televised. Yes they have difficult, dangerous jobs. But reality shows a far more interested in showcasing what morons they can act like. Well i looked up these two fellas to learn more and found it wonderful they have blogs and are being helped navigate thru a world filled with REAL idiots. So thankful for them that as a society we are learning to embrace what we dont always understand and starting to celebrate when we see a little of ourselves in people who are otherwise “different”. I hope the rest of larry’s and tracy’s life are good to them….what a great couple of dudes!

  3. Coral Cordova
    June 27, 2012, 1:14 am

    I think more people should be involved with autistic people to better understand them and help them feel accepted because like Tracy said in the show they are the same as everyone else just not physically. Tracy and Larry both seem like great good hearted people and I think that this episode was a great idea to let them be heard and understood by everyone. I hope they meet many accepting friendly people they can build relationships with I myself would love to meet them and get to know them.

  4. Tootie
    New York
    June 30, 2012, 10:53 am

    Thank you, National Geographic, for treating Larry and Tracey with the respect they deserve. Facilitated Communication is a much misunderstood method of expressing oneself. There is much yet to be learned and understood about the process, — and about autism — but there is no doubt that many individuals are benefitting greatly from its use. Larry and Tracey are helping the world understand that what you see is not all there is.

  5. Tara
    July 3, 2012, 4:08 pm

    i have read that facilitated communication is a complete hoax. 20/20 even did a special on it where an autistic girl’s father was facing jail time and sexual abuse charges after a facilitator helped the girl type that her father had abused her. It is unfortunate that nat geo is attempting to give facilitated communication further credibility through this program. It is also very sad for the autistic individuals and their families.

    October 21, 2012, 10:32 am

    Hi, i have a brother whit Autismo, plis I want to see and dowloand this video in Spanhis. thank you!