Autism Spectrum Disorder

Naman Barman

Autism spectrum disorder, a highly variable neurodevelopmental disorder, is rapidly becoming prevalent around the world. In a recent study conducted by Autism Speaks, it is estimated that approximately one in every 110 children are diagnosed with autism – with the rate of autism increasing at 10-17% every year. In this manner, autism has become more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes, and pediatric AIDS combined. While the media has recently created significant buzz around this disorder, there are very few resources available which communicate what autism really is. One characteristic that many people discuss is how autism is a “spectrum” of disorders, and so it’s not just one disorder. However, when I asked people what disorders were in this “spectrum” or which disorders within the spectrum were most prominent, I received few clear answers. For this reason, I decided to focus on visualizing this “spectrum” in a variety of ways for this project.

My first visualization shows this “spectrum” by using a gradient. This gradient lists the 5 disorders within autism spectrum disorder (also known as ASD): autism, Rett’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD), pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger’s syndrome. These 5 disorders range from “high-functioning” (meaning one is able to function well, or “highly” in society) to “low-functioning” (meaning one is not able to function as well). I decided to arrange these 5 disorders based on this spectrum from high-functioning to low-function in order to show the progression in functioning. Lastly, the numbers below the disorder indicate the percentage of U.S. children with that particular disorder.

My second visualization, the pie chart, does not clearly show this “spectrum” (from high to low functioning). Instead, it focuses more on the specific data: the percentage of U.S. children with one of the five disorders. While the pie chart does not show the “spectrum” itself, it is more helpful in the fact that we can see which disorders are more prevalent. For example, autism takes up a huge chunk of the pie, while CDD is barely visible. Although this data on the percentage of children affected by ASD disorders was also presented on the gradient, the pie chart does a better job of visually showing the prevalence of each disorder.

My third visualization, the world cloud, provides an ever broader perspective. In this word cloud, the size of each word determines how prevalent it is in society. For example, the word “autism” is bigger than all the other words, indicating that the majority of children with ASD have autism; on the contrary, CDD is extremely tiny, so relatively few people with ASD will have CDD. This word cloud has its up and downs. The good part is that it is visually very clear which disorders are most prevalent; however, this type of word cloud does not provide the exact data (unlike the pie chart and the gradient). Moreover, it does not show the “spectrum.” However, its simplicity does make it a useful visualization.

My last visualization, the one with circles, is meant to provide the broadest perspective. In the last three visualizations, I have shown the percentage of children with each of the five disorders in some way or another. However, if you wanted to compare how relative these percentages are to the overall population of children, you would not be able to do so. Thus, in this last visualization, I compare the percentage of children with any of the five spectrum disorders to children without ASD. Although no hard data is provided, the visual representation makes it clear that about 1 in every 100 children will have an autism spectrum disorder.

Ultimately, each visualization uses the same data – but provides a unique perspective. This is essentially the common theme in communication: the perspective you choose to communicate through is extremely significant. I enjoyed communicating these visualizations through different perspectives since it made me much more aware of how to communicate effectively.


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