Some autistic people (and non-autistic allies) in the "autism rights movement" reject the premise that autism is a disorder that requires treatment or should be resolved through a cure. They see autism as a way of being, and reject attempts to cure or treat autism as morally and ethically equivalent to "curing" individuals based on personality differences.

Given the extent of uncertainty about the cause, progression, treatment, and prognosis of autism, virtually every aspect of the topic is subject to controversy.

The classification of autism did not occur until the middle of the twentieth century, when in 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital studied a group of 11 children and introduced the label early infantile autism. At the same time a German scientist, Dr. Hans Asperger, described a different form of autism that became known as Asperger's syndrome — but the widespread recognition of Asperger's work was delayed by World War II in Germany.

Thus these two conditions were described and are today listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR (fourth edition, text revision 1) as two of the five pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), more often referred to today as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). All these conditions are characterized by varying degrees of difference in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.