What Is Mild Autism?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

There is no official diagnosis called "mild autism," yet the term, along with "high-functioning autism" is still used in some cases. What exactly do people mean when they use this term?

mild autism signs and symptoms
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

History of Terminology for Mild Autism

Back in 1980, "infantile autism" was defined, in all cases, as a severe and disabling disorder. No one with an autism diagnosis would be expected to succeed in school, make friends, or hold down a job.

In 1994, "Asperger's syndrome" was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Those with Asperger's syndrome were characterized as bright, verbal, and highly-functioning, while also demonstrating some autistic behaviors.

In 2013, the diagnostic criteria were changed again when the DSM-5 was published. Asperger's syndrome is no longer a diagnosis. Instead, the manual provides just one diagnosis for all people with autism—autism spectrum disorder (ASD). People with autism spectrum disorder may or may not have severe speech delays, sensory processing challenges, specific types of behaviors, or other symptoms.

While people with autism spectrum disorder typically have problems with social communication, these problems range from the extreme (non-verbal with aggressive behavior) to the relatively mild (problems with reading social cues such as vocal intonation and body language).

Now, a diagnosis of ASD includes a "level of support" from 1 to 3, with 3 describing people who need the most support. However, describing someone as having "Level 1 autism" has not really caught on. Many people have continued to use the term "Asperger's syndrome," but even this term doesn't correlate exactly to high-functioning or mild autism.

Mild Autism Symptoms

Certain symptoms must be present in order to qualify for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Even people with mild autism, therefore, may have significant developmental and sensory challenges that are severe enough to get in the way of normal activities and relationships.

While these symptoms must be present before age three, it's often the case that milder symptoms go unnoticed until a child is a bit older, especially for girls. If the symptoms appear for the first time after a child is three years old, they will not qualify for an autism diagnosis. They may, however, be diagnosed with the less severe social communication disorder.

If a child is truly autistic, their symptoms will include:

  • Problems with back-and-forth communication that may include difficulty with conversation, body language, eye contact, and/or facial expressions.
  • Difficulty in developing and maintaining relationships, often due to difficulty with imaginative play, making friends, or sharing interests.
  • Preference for repeating the same actions, activities, movements, or words over and over again, even if there is no obvious reason for doing so. (Lining up toys over and over again is a classic example.)
  • Restricted interests combined with in-depth knowledge. An autistic child, for example, might be fixated on a video game about which he knows everything there is to know.
  • Hyper- or hypo- reactivity to sensory input, in which a person doesn't notice or is overly sensitive to sound, light, smells, pain, or touch.

When the Mild Autism Term Is Used

So, what does a practitioner, teacher, or parent mean when they say a child has mild autism? Since there is no official definition of the term, 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. The term may also be used to help explain treatment decisions.

Furthermore, 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 . If and when these manifest may also depend on the specific environment or situation.

Diagnostic Criteria

The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ASD eliminate strict age criteria that say delays in social interaction and communication must be apparent before age three to diagnose autism. Instead, they require that symptoms must be present at an early age, but may not fully manifest themselves until it is clear that a child cannot keep up with social demands of his age group.

DSM-5 includes 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 function appropriately. However, some people with "mild" autism may need a great deal of support depending on the situation.

For example, a person with "mild" autism may have sophisticated verbal skills but have difficulty reading another person's body language or emotions.

Treatment

As with any type of autism, appropriate treatments include:

  • Behavioral therapy: This type of therapy uses rewards to teach expected or preferred behaviors.
  • Play or developmental therapy: This therapy uses play-based activities to build emotional and communication skills.
  • Drug therapies: There are medications that treat symptoms such as anxiety and mood disorders which may be associated with mild autism.
  • Speech therapy: With milder autism, speech therapy is usually related to conversation skills and body language.
  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapy is often helpful for sensory issues.
  • Physical therapy: Many children with autism have low muscle tone or are physically awkward.

Some children with autism may also benefit from treatments from associated problems such as seizures, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disorders, and issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. These problems are not part of autism per se, but they are more common among autistic children.

A Word From Verywell

The bottom line is that the term "mild autism" is not especially elucidating, though it is still used. Getting a thorough evaluation from a psychiatrist or other doctor who is highly knowledgeable about ASD is the best way to understand how your child is affected by the disorder and to address their specific challenges.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychiatric Association. Highlights of Changes from DSM-IV-TR to DSM-5

  2. Autism Speaks. DSM-5 and Autism: Frequently Asked Questions.

  3. Neggers YH. Increasing prevalence, changes in diagnostic criteria, and nutritional risk factors for autism spectrum disorders. ISRN Nutr. 2014;2014:514026. doi:10.1155/2014/514026

  4. Faras H, Al ateeqi N, Tidmarsh L. Autism spectrum disorders. Ann Saudi Med. 2010;30(4):295-300. doi:10.4103/0256-4947.65261

  5. Autism Speaks. Autism Diagnosis Criteria: DSM-5

  6. Mandell DS, Novak MM, Zubritsky CD. Factors associated with age of diagnosis among children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics. 2005;116(6):1480-6. doi:10.1542/peds.2005-0185

  7. Wiggins LD, Robins DL, Adamson LB, Bakeman R, Henrich CC. Support for a dimensional view of autism spectrum disorders in toddlers. J Autism Dev Disord. 2012;42(2):191-200. doi:10.1007/s10803-011-1230-0

  8. Weitlauf AS, Gotham KO, Vehorn AC, Warren ZE. Brief report: DSM-5 "levels of support:" a comment on discrepant conceptualizations of severity in ASD. J Autism Dev Disord. 2014;44(2):471-6. doi:10.1007/s10803-013-1882-z

  9. Defilippis M, Wagner KD. Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents. Psychopharmacol Bull. 2016;46(2):18-41.

  10. Pfeiffer BA, Koenig K, Kinnealey M, Sheppard M, Henderson L. Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorders: a pilot study. Am J Occup Ther. 2011;65(1):76-85.

  11. Cohen S, Conduit R, Lockley SW, Rajaratnam SM, Cornish KM. The relationship between sleep and behavior in autism spectrum disorder (ASD): a review. J Neurodev Disord. 2014;6(1):44. doi:10.1186/1866-1955-6-44

Additional Reading
  • Faras H, Al Ateeqi N, Tidmarsh L. Autism spectrum disorders. Ann Saudi Med. 2010 Jul-Aug;30(4):295-300. doi: 10.4103/0256-4947.65261.
  • H azen, EP et al. Sensory symptoms in autism spectrum disorders.  Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2014 Mar-Apr;22(2):112-24.
  • Reaven, Judy. "The treatment of anxiety symptoms in youth with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders: Developmental considerations for parents". Brain Research. 2011. 1380: 255–63.