What Is

Autism?

If your child recently received an autism diagnosis, you may be experiencing feelings of fear, worry, anxiety, and uncertainty about the future. The questions surrounding what a diagnosis of autism may mean for your child and family may feel endless. First, it may be helpful to start with answering the question “what is autism?”.
If your child recently received an autism diagnosis, you may be experiencing feelings of fear, worry, anxiety, and uncertainty about the future. The questions surrounding what a diagnosis of autism may mean for your child and family may feel endless. First, it may be helpful to start with answering the question “what is autism?”.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects brain development. Autism can be diagnosed at any age, however, symptoms generally appear within the first 2 years of life. Autism affects people without regard to gender, ethnicity, race, or socioeconomic status.

Autism is referred to as a “spectrum” disorder since it may involve a wide range of symptoms and the severity of those symptoms varies across individuals. Autism may affect many aspects of a person’s behavior but mostly commonly impacts an individual’s ability to communicate and interact socially. Individuals with autism may also exhibit repetitive patterns of behavior.

Some people with autism will require a lot of support in their daily lives, while others will need less. There is no cure for autism but early intervention, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), has been shown to effectively reduce the severity of symptoms and teach new skills so that a child is more easily able to navigate their world.

The exact causes of autism have yet to be determined, however, scientists and researchers have been able to determine some factors which may make autism more or less likely. We know that genes, in conjunction with the environment, can act together in different ways to affect development and change outcomes. According to the Center for Disease Control, some risk factors for autism are:

Autism is typically diagnosed by a medical doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist. These healthcare professionals will assess a child’s behavior and development and can often reliably diagnose autism by age two. If your child does not have a diagnosis of autism but you have concerns, is important to share those concerns with your pediatrician and seek out assessment as soon as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for developmental delays at their 9, 18, and 24 or 30 month well-child visits.

While all individuals with autism have the same diagnosis, each person’s level of need and skill can vary greatly. Many parents want to know what “type” of autism their child has but what they are referring to is the severity, or the impact that the condition has on their child’s daily life. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Edition 5 (DSM-V), categorizes those diagnosed with autism by level of support, which helps clinicians and parents better describe and plan for a child’s needs. When a child receives a diagnosis of autism, they are likely also given a level of support listed as Level 1, Level 2, or Level 3. A child’s required level of support is based on their ability to socially communicate and the severity of certain behaviors. Each functional level reflects an individual’s abilities and the amount of support they will need to reach their greatest independence.

Requiring Support

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Level 1

This is the lowest level which requires the least amount of support. People with Level 1 autism are more likely to have mild symptoms and can often communicate through conversation. Some individuals at this level may find it hard to make friends and maintain social relationships while also having difficulty adapting to changes in routine.

Requiring Substantial Support

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Level 2

This level is marked by deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication. Additionally, a person diagnosed with ASD Level 2 may suffer from social impairments that limit their ability to respond to social overtures from others. Restrictive and repetitive behaviors occur at a level that interfere with daily functioning across a variety of contexts which may cause distress for the individual and their caregivers.

Requiring Very Substantial Support

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Level 3

A person whose autism diagnosis is categorized as Level 3 displays severe deficits in verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction skills. A person may have few or no words which impedes their ability to communicate their wants and needs. Extreme difficulty coping with change as well as frequent restricted and repetitive behavior cause great distress for the person and their caregivers. This is the most severe level of autism and requires the most intensive level of support, likely across a person’s lifetime.

Keep in mind that autism is a spectrum and these levels are not black and white. With the right level of support and intervention, such as ABA therapy, a child can move between level’s depending on the symptoms they display, and the level of support needed at any given time. These levels can serve as an effective tool for caregivers and clinicians to make recommendations and plan for a child’s ongoing treatment.

To learn more about the symptoms most commonly associated with autism, click here.