After you receive an autism diagnosis for yourself or your child, the next logical step is to wonder about the severity of the disorder. Autism is called a "spectrum" for a good reason: symptoms can range dramatically from very mild to very severe. It can help to understand how mild autism is different from more severe forms of the disorder.
Understanding What Is Considered Mild Autism
Autism is defined and diagnosed based on several important criteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person who receives this diagnosis typically displays impairment in three major areas: social interaction, communication, and behavior. These challenges manifest themselves differently, depending on whether the individual has severe, moderate, or mild autism.
Social Skills and High Functioning Autism
Caregivers often note that a person with autism may appear to be in his or her own world. In high functioning autism, these social symptoms can be a bit less obvious than they are in more severe cases.
- While a person with severe autism might make no eye contact at all, a person with mild autism may have a fleeting eye gaze. This means that he or she might look you in the eye for just a moment or two at a time.
- In classic autism, the affected person may seem to take no notice of other people. However, people with mild autism often seek out social interaction, even if they may not know how to connect with other people in traditional ways or at their developmental level.
- Gestures can be difficult for people with any level of autism. In severe cases, gestures may be completely absent. People with high functioning autism may use gestures inconsistently or awkwardly and may need to be directly taught about the meaning of gestures like pointing, nodding the head, or waving.
- In severe cases of autism, the person may not make any attempt to share his or her world with other people. For those with mild autism, this characteristic may be more subtle. You may notice that a child with high functioning autism does not spontaneously show you things or tell you about his or her day. If asked or prompted, an older child or adult with mild autism may show or tell his or her experiences.
Communication Skills and Mild Autism
Communication challenges can be one of the most difficult aspects of living with autism. These challenges vary dramatically based on the severity of the disorder.
- In severe autism, a person may be completely nonverbal or communicate only through sign language or a communication board. In mild autism, individuals may have normal or even advanced language skills. They may simply have difficulty using language in a functional way to get what they want.
- Classically autistic individuals struggle with novel language, instead relying on echolalia (the repetition of words or phrases). While children with high functioning autism often go through a stage in which they use echolalia, they usually grow out of this and begin to form original sentences.
- In classic autism, a person who has developed some verbal skills may not be able to sustain a conversation. In mild autism, an individual may struggle with some of the finer points of initiating a conversation and keeping it going. However, they can learn about asking questions, taking turns talking, and starting up an interaction. With therapy, these challenges may not even be apparent to the casual observer.
Behavior and High Functioning Autism
Certain behaviors are a hallmark of any level of autistic impairment, but they can vary dramatically depending on the functioning level of the individual.
- For severely autistic children, significant "stimming" behavior may be necessary to make sense of the world. They may shake their heads, flap their hands, run in circles, rock back and forth, or engage in any number of other behaviors. For high functioning individuals, this may take the form of a verbal tick, a need to chew on something, a tendency to shift their weight back and forth, or another subtle behavior. Typically, mildly autistic individuals can redirect this behavior in a more socially appropriate way.
- In classic autism, routines are very important, and the individual may be very distressed by any deviation from the routine. In mild autism, a disruption of the routine may bother the individual, but he or she can typically find ways to recover. For mildly autistic children who have received therapy from an early age, routine disruption may not be a problem at all.
- Children with severe autism may not engage in any pretend play, while children with mild autism may have non-standard pretend play routines. For instance, instead of pretending to be a man mowing the lawn, a mildly autistic child may pretend to be the lawnmower.
- People with severe autism may not be able to care for themselves in a practical sense, such as dressing, making meals, or having a job. While they may encounter challenges involved in these tasks, those with mild autism can often lead independent, productive lives.
How to Get Help
If you suspect that you or your child may have mild autism, talk to your healthcare provider. He or she will know what is considered mild autism and can give you specific information about how you or your child compare to these characteristics.
The following autism websites can also be helpful:
- The Autism Research Institute
- The Autism Society of America
- The Autism Help site
- The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes
A Spectrum Disorder
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it can be difficult to define. Some individuals exhibit all the symptoms of mild autism, but more often, they have a mix of characteristics typical of mild autism, severe autism, and normal functioning. With therapy, many mildly autistic individuals can lead, happy, independent lives.