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Pervasive Developmental Disorder vs Autism: Is There A Difference?

September 22, 2023

Receiving an autism diagnosis for your child is a confusing experience, especially as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is regarded by some as an umbrella term for several different conditions.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder vs Autism: Is There A Difference?

Parents with children on the spectrum often receive multiple diagnoses, some of which are conditions that co-occur with autism, some of which are part of autism itself, and often find it difficult to understand which terminology is appropriate for their child’s needs.

Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) is one such condition that is found to exist under the category of autism spectrum disorders. This article aims to clarify the relationship between PDD and autism and hopefully offer parents some clarity.

What is pervasive developmental disorder?

Pervasive developmental disorder is a condition that involves a group of challenges, mainly centered around delays or difficulties with social and communication skills. Symptoms may show before the age of three years and can include, but are not limited to, difficulty in using and understanding language, difficulty relating to people, objects, or events, and difficulty with adapting to changes in routine or familiar surroundings.

Pervasive developmental disorder is a subtype of autism spectrum disorder but we should note that PDD is diagnosed in individuals who meet some but not all criteria of ASD. In layman’s terms, people with PDD tend to display mild ASD symptoms. For this reason, PDD is often also termed atypical autism.

What are the five pervasive developmental disorders?

In the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-4), pervasive developmental disorders were divided into five subtypes, which included: autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and PDD-NOS.

Following updates by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to the newer DSM–5, autism disorder, asperger disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder are now classified under the single diagnostic label of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

This change now means that symptoms classified under the broad umbrella of autism spectrum disorders are considered as continuums of mild to severe impairments. This aims to simplify diagnostic procedures because criteria are more specific, and seeks to aid the process of identifying treatments that target specific needs.

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Is PDD the same as autism?

Well, according to the updated DSM-5, the answer is technically “yes”. However, some people disagree with this as, although there is an overlap in the features or characteristics of autism and pervasive developmental disorder, there are distinct features that set them apart. For example, people with PDD do not typically meet the criteria for “classical” or “traditional” autism (Shaikh et al., 2020) but are framed as being on the autism spectrum. That is to say that PDD-NOS and asperger syndrome are both included under the same umbrella of autism spectrum disorder.

The concept of autism spectrum disorder was proposed by Lorna Wing (Tateno, et al. 2011). In her view, ASD encompasses disorders ranging from severe autism with profound intellectual disability to high functioning autism and asperger syndrome. Since the change on the DSM-5 as discussed, PDD’s classification falls under the category of autism spectrum disorders. PDD is therefore now seen as existing somewhere in the continuum of symptoms associated with ASD.

How to treat pervasive developmental disorders

Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, including pervasive developmental disorders, are best treated when detected as early as possible. Interventions such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, and behavioral therapy, are some of the common approaches chosen by parents.

It’s important to remember that the type of intervention or therapy chosen should be dependent on a child’s specific needs. Autism is a spectrum and all children with ASD require different approaches that suit their unique challenges.

In conclusion

As parents wrestle to find answers for their children’s conditions, the new classification of the DSM-5 aims to offer parents some solace by simplifying autism classification into a continuum.

It’s important for parents to remember that a diagnosis of PDD or autism may offer an explanation for their child’s behavior, but it does not define the child. Each autistic child is unique with varying strengths. As you seek ways to assist your child in day-to-day activities, remember that your child isn’t broken, they just need support to ensure they become the best that THEY can be.


Tateno, M., Kikuchi, S., Uehara, K., Fukita, K., Uchida, N., Sasaki, R., & Saito, T. (2011). Pervasive developmental disorders and autism spectrum disorders: are these disorders one and the same?. Psychiatry Investigation, 8(1), 67–70. https://doi.org/10.4306/pi.2011.8.1.67

Shaikh, J. (2020). Differences: Autism and Pervasive Development, https://www.medicinenet.com/differences_autism_and_pervasive_development/article.htm

National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (2020). https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html


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