Where Does Your Child Fall on the Autism Spectrum?

It's not easy to define "mild" or "severe" autism.

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The Autism Spectrum Is Huge

Autism is a spectrum disorder.

What that means is that people with autism can be very, very different from one another -- and still, quite legitimately, have autism spectrum diagnoses. 

There are people on the autism spectrum who can't speak, write, or use the toilet.  They may be self-abusive or aggressive to others, and quite genuinely dangerous to live with.

There are people on the autism spectrum who are brilliant public speakers and authors, who travel the world as the honored guests of major universities and international associations.

The reality is that, while everyone on the autism spectrum does share challenges in social communication, those at the mild end and those at the severe end really have very little else in common. 

The Autism Spectrum Is Confusing

Yes, many people describe "mild" and "severe" ends of the autism spectrum -- but few people with autism fit neatly into one or the other category. Even the new diagnostic "levels" are difficult to understand. That's because autism is confusing -- and here's why:

Even people with "severe" symptoms may also have extraordinary talents and skills. "Nonverbal" doesn't mean the same thing as "incapable." Thus, there are nonverbal people with autism who are also renowned artists, talented musicians, impressive mathematicians, and so forth.

Some people with "mild" symptoms also have "severe" symptoms. Imagine a person who can talk a blue streak about computer networks but is so overwhelmed by changes in routine that he literally falls apart when the bus is late.

Or a person who is getting straight "A's" in school, but can't attend graduation because her sensory issues are so severe. Then try to decide how to categorize such people!

Many people with autism do well in some settings but poorly in others. For many people on the spectrum, it's relatively easy to learn routines and appropriate behaviors when situations are well known and familiar.

But change the situation, and things fall apart quickly. Thus, a child might behave nearly typically in a special needs school setting, but be completely unable to manage a trip to the mall or the grocery store.

Many people with autism have "splinter skills." Splinter skills are abilities that are completely real and legitimate -- but very, very limited in scope. For example, a person with autism might be able to tell you what day of the week your birthday will fall on 50 years hence -- but still be unable to make change in a store.

Where Does Your Child Fall on the Autism Spectrum? 

By now, you've probably figured out that there's no easy answer to the question "where does your child fall on the autism spectrum?" The reality is that your child probably falls in different places depending upon the circumstances and expectations placed on him or her. That said, though, here are a few ways to define "mild" and "severe" autism:

Very Mild: Your child is able to communicate verbally at age level.

He plays WITH (rather than near) other children, and may even collaborate from time to time. His challenges may make certain interactions and activities difficult, but he is still able to take part in most typical school and social activities with minimal support. He has difficulty with social pragmatics (telling/getting jokes, understanding sarcasm, etc.).

Mild. Your child can communicate verbally at age level, though some language may be idiosyncratic. She is able to learn effectively in a typical classroom with some support.Play skills may be erratic: sometimes she plays with others, but she may find it hard to keep up with complex pretend play. She is aware of her differences and may feel bullied or marginalized by her peers. She may have significant sensory challenges (extreme responses to heat, cold, pain, sound, light, etc.).

Moderate: Your child can communicate verbally, but not at age level. His language skills are obviously compromised, though he can use words to communicate needs, wants, etc. He finds it difficult or even impossible to manage the complex demands of a typical classroom, though he may have some areas of real academic strength. He may or may not have significant sensory challenges. If he is in a typical school setting, he may be tolerated but is rarely included socially. He is likely to "melt down" when overwhelmed or frustrated.

Moderately Severe: Your child has limited verbal skills, and may copy phrases from TV or movies rather than craft her own language. She may have intellectual challenges that make it impossible to learn in a typical classroom (though she may have areas of relative strength). She may have challenging behaviors such as flapping, pacing, or noise-making that get in the way of inclusion in typical school and community activities. She may also have related challenges such as a very limited diet, extreme anxiety, etc.

Severe. Your child has little or no useful spoken language. He may have severe intellectual challenges (based on typical IQ tests which may or may not be terribly relevant). Behaviors may be difficult to manage, and may even include aggression and/or self-abuse. It is unlikely that your child is able to function in a typical school setting (even in a special needs classroom), but he is likely to learn new skills and gain new interests in a small, therapeutic setting. It may be difficult or even impossible to take your child out of his comfort zone and include him in typical community activities.

An Important Caveat

The descriptions above are intended to help parents to understand how others will think of their children relative to the autism spectrum. The reality, however, is that children may be "severe" in school but "moderate" at home, or vice versa.  They may also move "up" the spectrum as they grow older and learn new skills. 

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