Select Page

by | May 25, 2018 | News & Views | 6 comments

Please note – this older blog has been superseded by a more recent blog on autistic communication issues, repetitive behaviours or thought patterns, and sensory issues. You may also find our blog on autism diagnostic criteria useful…

Autism was previously defined by the famous ‘triad of impairments’, a concept introduced in the late 1970s. (Wing and Gould.) Undertake any course of further learning about autism or read a reference book, and you will come across it, perhaps being referenced as the former gold standard of diagnosis, regarding autism.

Some organisations STILL reference the concept – but Autism’s Triad Of Impairments is now very dated…

The Triad of Impairments was a tool describing ASC limitations – it included the three elements of Communication, Social Interaction and Flexible Imaginative Functions (including repetitive or obsessive behaviours; sometimes, the third element referred to ‘flexibility’ and / or ‘imagination’.)

The triad has also been described as impairments in theory of mind and executive dysfunction, and a propensity to ‘detail-focused’ behaviour.

However, with revisions to diagnostic manuals, the sub-types of autism have been amalgamated into ‘Autism’, with key characteristics (in a diagnostic framework) including impaired social communication and social interaction, restricted behaviour/flexibility, and sensory challenges. (Please read our more recent blog on communication issues, repetitive behaviours or thought patterns, and sensory issues.)

Let’s look at the negative implications of these older terms

A 2009 Study states: “Exceptional pioneering work in the late 1970s gave rise to the concept of the triad of impairments: impaired communication, impaired social skills and a restricted and repetitive way of being-in-the-world. This allowed a new way for professionals and families to understand autism; this was a transitional idea.”

Experts have moved away from the triad, which was seen as a single explanation for the symptoms of autism – as found in the articleTime to give up on a single explanation for autism’.

The authors state: “Despite half a century’s research into ASD, there is little evidence regarding the unity of the three core areas of impairment [as described in the triad]. The triad of impairments can be fractionated, and should be studied separately.”

Continuing to reference the triad could do two NEGATIVE THINGS:

(1)Inhibit the development of research into strategies to help autists. The above article authors suggested NOT looking for SOMETHING that links the characteristics.

(2)Support the notion that autism requires a cure. Again the article states: “Abandoning the search for a single cause [for] autism may also mean abandoning the search for a single ‘cure’ or intervention.”

The link with genes

An interesting 2008 study asked whether key autistic-like traits are mirrored at the genetic level; with separate genes contributing to each characteristic. The authors found that: ‘Each aspect is highly heritable.’

There are other issues with the historical triad too. Does it take into account age and gender? Not really. A 2014 study hinted at ambiguity, and stated: “Findings regarding gender differences in the triad remain ambiguous.”

Also, it should be noted that the triad DID NOT incorporate sensory issues in autists, e.g. their over-or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, light, temperatures etc, as this is a major element or factor for autistic people.

Impairment or advantage?

Let’s look further at the term impairment as used in the triad – an objective term. A ‘New Scientist’ article states: “Auties, as some people with autism call themselves, don’t merely think differently: in certain ways they think better. Call it the autie advantage.”

A blog on SEN Assist sums our question of ‘impairment’ up well, with author Adele Divine stating – “The ‘triad’ [was] a helpful tool in that it highlights difficulties, which are common to those with a diagnosis of autism, but I have an issue with the word ‘impairment’. The dictionary definition of impairment is: ‘The result of being impaired; a deterioration or weakening; a disability… ‘The Triad of Differences’ would be less harsh. Differences may lead to difficulties, but with the right structures and supports differences can also lead to great discoveries. Many of the difficulties represented in the triad can also be positive character traits. The word ‘impairment’ does not suggest this.”

Focussing on autism’s positives

We (as a group of interested parties) should now focus more on positive autism characteristics, like consideration of details, a determination to seek the truth, and an original, often unique perspective in problem solving.

As described on a blog for workshop provider, Autism Awareness Centre, autist John Simpson has created his own triad which is: *The need for predictability *The need for motivation *An uneven cognitive profile (splinter skills). All autists can find their own triad of positivity – this author’s is rational, focussed and self-controlled!

A little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.


  1. Paul

    The triad of impairments has been changed, so your knowledge seems outdated, look at the DSM-5 for up to date info.

    Agree some terminology is a bit odd. ASD is ‘disorder’ and probably the most out of step with the pc world we are in. As for impairments, that is the reality of aspects of autism, and the study is generally aimed at understanding these as primary research.

    From that the secondary research can be done, which as you put forward, can be far more positive.

    • admin

      Thanks Paul, yes you’re right, the post was dated – we have since updated the phrasing, and directed readers to the more recent post on the key diagnostic areas, which can be found at – However it is worth keeping the ‘Triad’ article live, as there are some interesting points and links; and in fact, some info-providers (one current provider of an autism qualification, for example) do still refer to it in their material. It’s interesting isn’t it that so much stems from medical research, where ‘disorders’ and ‘impairments’ are the chosen language; but that this does sit uncomfortably with many of us! (Even though autism can leave an autist feeling ‘dis-ordered’, eg. without order.) Fortunately there are many vloggers and bloggers using much more positive terminology about themselves which is filtering through. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Clare

    Fab post- I am currently undergoing my PGCE year in a secondary school for YA with autism (COVID has meant no longer in school but still work to complete). The Triad of Impairments model was used in our CPD and we were told to use it as a tool/ model for lesson planning. While I can see the benefits of taking into account factors in the model to ensure that lessons are accessible to all, the term ‘impairment’ has so many negative connotations attached to it. Presently writing a report and want to cover this, struggling to find an article which sums it up as well as you do- academia requires journal articles unfortunately; do you have any links? Thanks!

    • admin

      Thanks so much!
      Goodness, so the triad is still being used for training purposes? That’s a little worrying! But great that it allows people to examine its social history and see how far we have come. Generally impairment isn’t a term that any autistic people like to be used. Whilst using the model has its merits, as you say, eg. to understand the key factors, it’s teaching teachers to use dated terminology. This was a source I referenced in my new book on autism (ideal for teachers) – LINK –

      (Link to my new book for professionals and families – ‘Autism from A to Z’ – )

      • C

        Thanks so much for replying!
        Yes it was used when looking at the history of autism, teaching practice etc. I agree it’s dated terminology- my report wants to investigate this- I mention how long this has been in discussion- yet we are still using it? What does this suggest and how does this reflect on teaching practice? I can understand using it to show how understanding developed over time but also feel that it is important to say whilst it is being used that the term is outdated- how can we move forward and better practice if we take an ostrich approach and pretend nothing needs to change? If we never reflected on anything where would we be?
        Fab thank you for these- it is really helpful!

        • admin

          The author (Kathy) completed a national course in around 2018 that still used the terms – and all the tutors who marked pupils’ work never commented about the dated terms. Much to learn!

          In any case all I can say is THANK YOU SO MUCH for your insights and invaluable work, & good luck with your studies.


Submit a Comment

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Also published on Medium.