The Five Factor Model of Autism

The Five Factor Model of Autism is a visual model and related materials designed to help people understand autism better, by identifying five key factors common to most autistic people, exploring variations in how these factors are observed and experienced, and concretely illustrating the multifactorial nature of autism.Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 8.00.38 PM

Autism tends to elude a simple explanation. First, it cannot be reduced to one distinguishing characteristic, behavior pattern, or neurological difference. Second, some characteristics are also found in nonautistic people, in some form or fashion. Third, the observable aspects of these characteristics often present quite differently from one autistic person to another.

The resulting confusion leads many nonautistic people – including some parents, clinicians, and teachers – to base their assumptions about who is or isn’t autistic, and what autism is and isn’t, on a few behaviors they happen to associate with autism. This means some autistic children and adults are left undiagnosed and unsupported. Without being understood on a basic level, autistic people must slog through a swamp of negative labels, misdiagnoses, and stereotypes to develop a healthy, well-integrated identity, a crucial prerequisite for learning the self-advocacy skills required to navigate the world.

Confused parents struggle to see through the stereotypes and stigma to accept and adapt to their child’s autistic neurology. Teachers, classmates, employers, colleagues, romantic partners, and others often misjudge what they perceive as bad behavior or intent. The persistent, widespread use of the puzzle piece symbol (over the objections of the many autistic people who find it dehumanizing) is a reflection of the incomprehension of the neuromajority, rather than the unknowable nature of autism or autistic people.

To help counter some of the confusion around autism, this visual, multifactorial model is intended to facilitate understanding of the following:

1)    The notable and persistent presence of these five characteristics in a given individual suggests an underlying neurological variant known as autism.

2)    Each of these five common roots culminates in leaves with a wide variety of patterns and shapes. Autism is better understood at the roots than by comparing a vast multitude of leaves.

3)    None of these five factors is inherently good, bad, new, or exotic in the context of human neurology, and neither is autism itself.

4)    Older models that position autistic people along a one-dimensional, linear spectrum – with more overtly observable autistic characteristics being considered low-functioning, and fewer as high-functioning – should be contrasted with and replaced by more multidimensional, neutrally descriptive models.

Below are some examples of the five factors. These can be experienced as impairments, neutral traits, abilities, and/or assets, depending on the dynamic interplay between an individual, their environment, and the availability of appropriate supports and accommodations.

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The Five Factor Model is written to be free of the deficit-based language of the traditional medical model of autism, omitting pathologizing and ableist textbook terms like, “abnormalities,” “absence of,” “failure to,” “total lack of,” and “excessive.” Instead, the Five Factors and the examples above are described in terms that are more accurate and more congruent with the language used by most autistic writers, lecturers, and researchers. This model excludes questionable characteristics that appear to be based more on autism tropes, stereotypes, and speculative theories than current evidence, so lack of empathy, low social interest, and poor theory of mind are omitted.

There is no objective way of measuring the kinds of general characteristics (as opposed to specific behaviors) represented in any of these five areas. Therefore, the Five Factor Model is illustrated as a bar chart without a vertical axis since it is not intended to reflect a data-driven score of any of the five factors, much less to be used to rate how autistic a person is overall. Instead of bars, these five factors could just as easily be represented by blobs of color or different shapes. The taller bars simply represent more predominant characteristics in a given area, relative to the other areas. The Five Factor Model is not a clinical or academic instrument, but a conceptual tool for educational purposes. For example:

  • The Five Factor Model is used to explain to teachers and parents how the multifactorial nature of autism contributes to autistic individuals presenting quite differently from one another on the surface, while identifying five key, underlying characteristics autistic populations as a whole tend to have in common.
  • It is used to facilitate exploration and discussion of possible cause-and-effect relationships between and among the Five Factors.
  • It has been used as a visual anchor for a family discussion about how a teenager’s autistic characteristics and self-identification have shifted over time, informing family members’ assumptions, expectations, and manner of support.
  • Neuropsychologists familiar with this model have begun incorporating it into narrative sections of their reports and consultations with parents of autistic children.
  • Finally, autistic individuals – including children – have used the Five Factor Model to understand and describe themselves, and to advocate for themselves at school, work, home, and in the community.

Autism is a dynamic subject. The body of research on autism is still in its infancy, while in contrast, there is a community of autistic thinkers and writers who are prolifically contributing to the world’s understanding of autism. The Five Factor Model is a working model that is being improved by critical input, particularly from autistic people, and may be of use as a springboard to other models.

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