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Severity in the Autism Spectrum
Severity in the Autism Spectrum

As we’ve discussed previously, our understanding of what an autism diagnosis entails continues to evolve. This is due to the large variance in how each individual might experience their autism symptoms. These symptoms have often been siloed under two terms, high-functioning or low-functioning.

In truth, autism’s symptoms are much more varied case by case than these two options. Instead, symptoms are often measured by severity- indicating how frequently and to what affect each person on the spectrum experiences the symptom in question. In this post, we’ll discuss symptom severity in the autism spectrum.

Common Symptoms

There are several common symptoms that many individuals on the spectrum share or experience to some degree of severity. Some of the most common include:

  • Challenges with verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Challenges reading and understanding social cues and by extent, challenges with social interaction.
  • Sensitivity to sensory stimulation and interpretation, causing sensory meltdowns or tantrums.
  • Delayed developmental learning and cognition and by extent, challenges in traditional classroom or professional settings.

What Severity Looks Like

Though the symptoms may be similar, they manifest differently for each individual. Some people on the spectrum will experience communication challenges earlier in life, then overcome those challenges through ongoing therapy and treatment. For others, they may experience the challenge more severely and be completely non-verbal. Still others will fall somewhere in between. 

The more severe a person experiences their symptoms, the more likely they are to need ongoing and intensive services to achieve more independence and success. Severity can vary so much that some people on the spectrum can go undiagnosed as their symptoms are virtually nonexistent to the untrained eye. Much for the same reason autism is defined as a spectrum, autism symptoms exist on a range of severity, which helps define autism and its related conditions.

The DSM-5

The fifth and most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is the standard point of reference that medical professionals use to diagnose mental and behavioral conditions. The DSM-5 outlines the above symptoms as part of the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and also provides a table of Severity Levels for those symptoms. 

There are three severity levels in this table, Level 1 being “Requiring Support,” Level 2 being “Requiring Substantial Support,” and Level 3 being “Requiring Very Substantial Support.” The 3 levels help doctors and caregivers understand how best to support each child on the spectrum and ensures they are set up for success with the appropriate services and support. 
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January 27, 2020

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