A spectrum disorder is essentially a mental health condition with a range of linked symptoms that can sometimes extend into singular traits. These symptoms often manifest themselves in similar behaviors or expressed characteristics and are thought to result from the same underlying mental and sometimes physical mechanisms.
What that means in layman’s terms is that there are different levels of how much a set of symptoms show’s up in our behavior.
Spectrum disorders tend to fall within a spectrum themselves. Some of them, such as bipolar disorders and dissociative or stress disorders, fall along a continuum of types that are less related by severity and categorized more on what kind of symptoms you have. Others, such as autism spectrum disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), fall within a range that does vary based on how bad your symptoms are.
For example, a common symptom of ADHD is hyper-activity. Some people who carry the diagnosis find themselves easily excited by things they like, while others find that they get so hyper that they have trouble controlling the volume of their voice or the compulsion to move around the room. Both are symptoms of hyperactivity and are a sign of ADHD, but clearly, one is more disruptive than the other to one’s ability to function normally in a social situation.
Identifying a Spectrum Disorder
Regardless of the nature of the “spectrum,” itself, all these disorders and conditions are classified based on requirements laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as well as the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Other Health Related Problems (ICD), and these requirements have varied with time and with each new version of the DSM and the ICD. Both of these books are used as guidance by behavioral health providers to aid in assessment and treatment.
Generally, types of spectrums are categorized into six primary groupings. The first of these is anxiety, obsessions, compulsions stress and dissociation, which includes obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others. All of these conditions are broader categories for a range of symptoms; for instance, Tourette syndrome and certain eating disorders would fall under the OCD category.
Another primary grouping is that of general development disorders, which is where perhaps the most familiar spectrum disorder of autism falls. This spectrum can range from milder forms of Asperger syndrome to pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), Rett syndrome and many others. These disorders differ from specific development disorders, which more often categorize specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.
Psychosis is also a broader category for spectrum disorders. The more severe spectrum is sometimes referred to as a schizophrenia spectrum or a psychotic spectrum and includes a few subtypes of schizophrenia while the schizoaffective spectrum blends certain aspects of psychosis, such as hallucinations and delusions, with certain aspects of mood disorders.
Mood disorders, themselves comprise a range of spectrum disorders, such as a mood disorder spectrum, a bipolar spectrum or a depressive spectrum. The lattermost spectrum is classified as such because people tend to move between subtypes, such as minor depressive disorder and various types of atypical depression.
A relatively new category of spectrum disorders classifies drug use as falling along a continuum, suggesting that a certain level of consumption of drugs, including alcohol, can be beneficial but can also snowball into an unhealthy dependence or addiction. This spectrum concept is particularly interesting because it also calls into question the role of society, particularly policies surrounding the control of these substances. Oftentimes these policies also fall along a spectrum depending on the nature of the drug in question.
Finally, a generally less clear-cut category of spectrum disorders is that of paraphilias and obsessive compulsive spectrum. Paraphilias are, thus, sexual behaviors that result from an impulsiveness-compulsiveness drive that tends to fall along a continuum from impulsiveness to compulsiveness. The difficulty in this categorization is sometimes in distinguishing impulsiveness from compulsiveness
Stigma on the Spectrum
In recent years, the proper diagnosis of some of these disorders, such as Autism spectrum disorders and ADHD, have met different challenges. While the diagnoses of various types of bipolar disorder, depression, stress and compulsive disorders carry certain levels of stigma, these diagnoses are generally less contested because they can more easily fit into the general spectrum of behavioral health issues. On the other hand, disorders that require more complex delineation, such as autism spectrum disorders and ADHD not only invite stigma, but are also less accepted by the general population as legitimate neurobiological (brain) disorders but more as socially constructed illnesses. In efforts to improve treatment options for these disorders, behavioral health specialists are constantly looking toward new models and approaches for categorizing and identifying these conditions.