What Does Mild Autism Mean?

Mild Autism
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Answer: Because autism is a "spectrum disorder," it is possible to have a very wide range of symptoms. At one point, there were five different autism spectrum diagnoses, and people whose autistic symptoms were less challenging were generally diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.  In 2013, however, the diagnostic criteria were changed. Rather than five separate autism spectrum diagnoses, there is now only one: Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What this means is that there is no official diagnosis meaning "person with relatively mild autistic symptoms," but there are still plenty of people who fit that bill.

So what does a practitioner, teacher or parent mean when they say their child (or your child) has "mild" autism? Since there is no official definition of the term "mild autism," every person using it has a slightly different idea of what it means. 

Sometimes the term is used when an individual is clearly autistic, but also has significant spoken language and other skills. Or... the term may also be used euphemistically to describe a child whose challenges are by no means mild, but who has just a few spoken words.  It may also be used to help explain treatment decisions

To make matters more difficult, a person with "mild autism" may have advanced communication skills and academic abilities, but have very delayed social skills, severe sensory issues, and/or extreme difficulties with organizational skills.

As a result, the individual with "mild" autism may find public school or work settings more challenging than an individual with greater language challenges but fewer sensory or social problems.

As an example, imagine a very academically bright, linguistically advanced individual who can't stop himself from blurting out answers in the classroom, and falls apart at the sound of a vacuum cleaner or the light of a fluorescent bulb.

Compare such a person to an individual who has significant problems with academics but has few issues with sound or light, and has no problem following rules. Which individual has "milder" symptoms? The answer, of course, is that it depends on upon the setting and the situation.

The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria do offer some help with that question, because they include three "functional levels" to describe the severity of autism.  People who are "mildly" autistic are generally considered to be Level 1, meaning they need relatively little support to live a normal life. 

But of course, that's misleading because many people with "mild" autism may need a great deal of support depending upon the situation.  For example, a person with "mild" autism may have great verbal skills but have no ability to read another person's body language or emotions.  As a result, plenty of people with "mild" autism get themselves into trouble with the opposite gender, with work or classmates, or even with the police.

Bottom line, the term "mild autism" is not especially useful, though it is fairly common. To really make sense of its significance, you'll need to ask direct, specific questions about verbal, social, sensory and behavioral challenges.



Attwood, Tony. The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome. Jessica Kingsley Press:2007.

Koyama T, Tachimori H, Osada H, Takeda T, Kurita H. "Cognitive and symptom profiles in Asperger's syndrome and high-functioning autism." Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2007 Feb;61(1):99-104.

Seung HK. "Linguistic characteristics of individuals with high functioning autism and Asperger syndrome." Clin Linguist Phon. 2007 Apr;21(4):247-59.

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