What Is Mild Autism?

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Mild autism is not an official medical term. Providers do not use the term "mild autism" when making an autism diagnosis. However, some therapists, teachers, parents, and others might use it to explain how much support an autistic person needs or how autism has affected a person's life.

The term "mild autism" can be confusing unless you know that autism is a spectrum disorder, with symptoms ranging from least to most severe.

Mild autism suggests that a person has symptoms of autism, but they are not significant enough to require high-level support.

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For example, "mild autism" might be used when an autistic person has spoken language and other skills that are beyond what is expected of autistic people. Sometimes, people are said to have "mild autism" when they have advanced academic abilities but struggle with social skills, sensory challenges, or organization.

Also Known As

Mild autism is also called high-functioning autism (HFA), Asperger's syndrome, or described as "being on the lower end of the spectrum."

This article will explain why the term mild autism is used and how the definition has changed over time. It will also cover the signs and symptoms associated with mild autism and the type of support that an autistic person may need.

Mild Autism: An Evolving Definition

The meaning of mild autism has changed over the past few decades. Today, people use the term differently and some people do not use it at all.

In the 1980s

Autism was known as "infantile autism" in the 1980s and was considered a severe and disabling disorder.

There were no differences seen between mild and severe autism symptoms. Autistic people were not expected to succeed in school, make friends, or hold a job.

In the 1990s

In 1994, a new version of the guidebook that providers used to diagnose mental and developmental disorders was published. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-4) added the diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome.

Autistic people who could communicate and who were deemed to be intelligent were said to be "high-functioning," which meant they had better social and communication skills than autistic people were expected to have.

Why Is Asperger's Controversial?

Some people in the autistic community continue to use and identify with an Asperger's diagnosis, but there are also many who do not accept the term. One reason that Asperger's is controversial is that the name has roots in the Holocaust.

Some historians believe that Hans Asperger—the researcher for whom the syndrome was named— worked with the Nazis and that his research on autistic children was largely motivated by eugenics.

In the 2010s and Through Today

A new version of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was published in 2013. This is the reference that providers use today to diagnose autism.

Asperger's syndrome is no longer a diagnosis in the DSM-5. Instead, the manual provides one diagnosis for all people with autism symptoms: autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

People with ASD have challenges with social communication, usually resist changes in their routine, and can be hypersensitive to noise, smell, touch, and other sensory experiences. These symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Today, people with mild symptoms as well as those with severe speech delays or sensory issues are all diagnosed with ASD.

The DSM-5 identifies the level of support an autistic person may need by using functioning levels. The levels range from 1 to 3 and are based on the severity of an autistic person's symptoms, with 1 describing people who need the least support because their symptoms are mild.

However, few people outside of the medical community use the term "level 1 autism." Often, the terms Asperger's syndrome or mild autism are still used, though they are controversial within the autistic community.

Mild Autism Symptoms

Every person diagnosed with ASD has specific developmental and sensory differences. Even people with mild autism can have symptoms that affect how they go about their activities and relationships.

Common symptoms of autism include:

  • Difficulty with back-and-forth communication: An autistic person can find it hard to hold a conversation and use or understand body language, eye contact, and facial expressions.
  • Having a hard time developing and maintaining relationships: Autistic children often struggle with imaginative play, making friends, or sharing interests.
  • Repeating the same actions, activities, movements, or words: Autistic children may line up objects or do other activities over and over again, even if there is no obvious reason for doing so.
  • Self-stimulating behaviors: Also called stimming, autistic people may rock back and forth, hum, pace, or flap their hands in ways that seem unusual to others but that provide stimulation to an autistic person or calm them.
  • Limited range of interests, but in-depth knowledge: An autistic child might only care about a few things, but they'll know everything there is to know about the things they're interested in.
  • Being extremely sensitive or indifferent to sensations: An autistic person can be extremely sensitive (hyperreactive) to the feel of the material on their skin, be unable to stand loud noises, or have strong reactions to other sensory experiences. Other autistic people are at the other extreme of sensory experiences; they may not notice changes in sensation (hyporeactive) such as extreme heat or cold.

With mild autism, some symptoms are barely present, while others are quite noticeable. For example, someone with mild autism may:

  • Be able to speak but has trouble with back-and-forth conversation
  • Tries to make friends but are not successful because they appear "odd" to others
  • Does age-appropriate schoolwork or tasks, but has a hard time changing activities or trying new ways of doing something

Autism symptoms can vary from person to person. It's also important to consider that they can be affected by an autistic person's location (e.g., at home or school) as well as who is with them (e.g., friends and family or strangers).

How Autism Is Diagnosed

If you or your pediatrician think your child is showing symptoms of autism, you'll be referred to a specialist who treats ASD. These specialists may include child psychologists, child psychiatrists, pediatric neurologists, and developmental pediatricians.

The specialist will go over your child's medical and developmental history. Your child's intelligence, behavior patterns, and social and communication skills can be tested.

Tests used to help diagnose autism can include:

Before the DSM-5, a child had to show delays in social interaction and communication before age 3 to be diagnosed with autism. Now, there's a little more flexibility—the symptoms just have to be present from an "early age."

However, this timeframe can still be too strict for people with mild symptoms. For some people, autism symptoms are not obvious until they're older. For example, an autistic preteen might be unable to keep up socially with their peers.

A later autism diagnosis is more common in girls for a few reasons. For example, autistic girls are less likely to engage in repetitive behaviors and don't act out as much as autistic boys. They're also more likely to be seen as shy and withdrawn. Since caregivers and teachers often consider these behaviors "expected" for girls, it contributes to the delay in autism diagnosis.

Mild autism in adults can also be hard to diagnose. Usually, a person will need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in adult autism. They can take a special test called the Developmental, Dimensional, and Diagnostic Interview-Adult Version (3Di-Adult).

How Are Levels of Autism Diagnosed?

The DSM-5 outlines the three functional levels of autism. It provides guidelines that providers use to determine how much support a person with ASD needs.

Autistic people who need the least amount of support to function in their daily lives receive a level 1 (mild autism) diagnosis.

Support needed for a person with level 1 autism might include:

  • Building self-control
  • Controlling emotions
  • Being flexible
  • Developing back-and-forth communications skills
  • Understanding non-verbal communication
  • Reducing anxiety

How much support people with mild autism need depends on many factors and varies from person to person.

Mild Autism Treatment

The treatment for people with mild autism usually will depend on how old they are. Autistic children and teens need different support than autistic adults.

If you are a caregiver you may worry that your autistic child will never have "a normal life" because they have support needs that are different from their peers. However, ensuring that your child has the support they need will help them flourish throughout their life.

Treatments for Children

Autistic children often need a very structured routine. Their caregivers can work with a team of professionals to ensure their child has the support they need at school and at home.

An education plan that's tailored to an autistic child's needs is also necessary. They may also benefit from social-skills training, mental health counseling, a special diet, and help to build motor skills.

As with any type of autism, the most helpful treatments for mild autism often involve a variety of therapies. The type of support that's needed, as well as how much is needed, may change over time.

Possible treatments for mild autism include:

  • Behavioral therapy: This type of therapy uses rewards to teach autistic children expected or preferred behaviors.
  • Play or developmental therapy: This therapy uses play-based activities to build an autistic child's emotional and communication skills.
  • Speech therapy: Speech therapy for children with mild autism is usually focused on conversation skills and learning to understand body language.
  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapy is often helpful for sensory challenges that many autistic children face.
  • Physical therapy: Many autistic children have low muscle tone and struggle with physical activities.
  • Specific condition treatment: Autistic kids also need to be treated for any other physical or mental health conditions they have. For example, seizures, gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disorders, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder commonly co-occur with autism.

Treatments for Adults

Structure and predictability are also important for autistic adults. Examples of what this might include are:

  • Accommodations at work, such as scheduled breaks, written (rather than verbal) instructions, and earplugs or headphones to reduce sensory overload
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to develop coping skills, which in turn helps them manage relationships and deal with frustrations at work and in life.
  • Occupational therapy that focuses on problem-solving skills, building self-esteem, and taking charge of home and finances

As with autistic children, autistic adults also need treatment and support for any other conditions they have—for example, going to therapy or taking medication to help them cope with anxiety.

Summary

"Mild autism," "high-functioning autism," and "Asperger's syndrome" are terms that generally mean the same thing: that an autistic person does not have severe symptoms and has a lower level of support needs than someone else with autism.

There's no separate diagnosis for mild autism, but providers may categorize an autistic person as having "level 1" autism if they have mild symptoms.

People with level 1 autism still have a hard time communicating and interacting with others. They can also find it difficult to change their routine and can be sensitive to sounds, pain, tastes, or other sensations.

Caregivers may worry that their autistic child will not have a "normal" life because they need support that their peers do not. However, autism symptoms are different for each person, no matter what level of autism they were diagnosed with. While an autistic child's age also factors into the support they need, their treatment goals and needs will change as they get older.

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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.
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Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.