When Autism Is "Mild" or "Severe"

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.

A "spectrum diagnosis" is hard to describe, hard to write about, and - sometimes - hard to explain.   How do you tell a teacher who's only worked with severely autistic children that your child with Asperger syndrome needs less accommodation and more academic challenges?  How do you explain to your parents that, yes, Temple Grandin is autistic - but that doesn't mean their severely autistic grandchild is going to grow out of autism and become a Ph.D.?

Just as challenging is finding a place in the "autism community."   For parents, it can be quite daunting to find a support group that really fits.  If your child is "severe," listening to complaints about college prep can be frustrating and downright depressing.

  If your child is "mild," you're not likely to learn much from a conversation about life skill classes or residential schools.  It's actually possible for parents to argue over whether a particular child has "real" autism - even when a "real" diagnosis has been made.  In some areas, autism support groups actually split into "high functioning" (orAspergers) groups and "autism" groups - and many parents and adults with autism find such a separation very helpful.

As a writer, I make a point of writing about both mild and severe autism - bearing in mind that even when communications issues are milder, other issues, such as social anxiety or sensory dysfunction, may be quite overwhelming.

As a reader, do you look specifically for articles about "mild" or "severe" autism?  Do you only pick out articles that specifically address your child's diagnosis?  How do you cope with the reality that autism is such a vast spectrum?




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