What is Severe Autism

Symptoms of "Severe" Autism

Brain Scan
Brain Scan. Don Farrall

"Severe autism" is NOT an official diagnosis. It's just a description that helps parents, doctors, teachers, and therapists to explain a person's level of functioning and need. Severe autism is sometimes called low-functioning autism, classic autism, "Kanner's" autism or profound autism. Simply put, it describes those people with the most significant symptoms on the  autism spectrum disorders.

Another way to describe severe autism is to talk about the level of support required for a person with the diagnosis to function safely.

  The current diagnostic manual (DSM-5) provides three levels of autism, with more support required at each level. People with severe autism would usually be diagnosed as having "Level 3" Autism Spectrum Disorder, meaning they need a great deal of support. It is not unusual for a person with severe autism to require 24/7 support.

Why would someone need so much support?

  1. While everyone with an autism spectrum disorder has a difficult time with social skills and communication, people with severe autism are most likely to be entirely unable to use spoken language. They may also appear to take no notice of the people around them.
  2. Generally speaking, people with severe autism have low to very low IQ's, even when tested using non-verbal testing tools.It's important to know, however, that appearances can be deceiving: some people with severe autism have learned to communicate using sign, spelling boards or other tools. Some of those people are quite articulate, and they make it clear that at least some people with severe autism are more capable than they appear to be.
  1. Many people on the autism spectrum have sensory dysfunction (they're too sensitive or not sensitive enough to light, sound, touch, taste or smell). People with severe autism tend to be extremely sensitive, such that going out into crowds, bright lights or loud noises can be overwhelming.
  2. Most people on the autism spectrum have repetitive behaviors and self-stimulatory behaviors. People with severe autism are likely to have many such behaviors, and those behaviors can include self-injury (head banging, hair pulling, etc.).
  1. Severe autism can go along with aggressive behaviors. That is, a person with severe autism may act out by hitting, biting, or kicking. They may also have behaviors such as fecal smearing, door banging, etc. which require quick and effective response.
  2. "Eloping" (running away with no obvious cause and no particular destination) is also common among people with severe autism. In some cases, special locks, alarms, and identification tools are necessary to ensure the safety of a person with severe autism.
  3. People with severe autism may also have physical symptoms that sometimes appear with less profound autism. These may include sleeplessness, epilepsy, mood disorders, and, according to some sources, gastrointestinal issues.

Treatments for severe autism usually include medications for anxiety and related issues. Other options may include Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) along with speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy and, sometimes, play therapy. Parents should be sure that their doctor checks their child with severe autism for any physical problems which could be contributing to difficult behaviors.

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