Awareness of autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has increased a lot in the last decade. However, there are still a lot of gaps in the way people understand them. We often talk about high vs low levels of functioning in autism, but what do those terms actually mean? Is it really that simple?
In short, no.
There’s a diverse community of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders. All instances of these disorders are a little different. The categories we use to describe them are rough, but they can help to conceptualize the sort of experiences that individuals go through.
We’re going to give you a little insight into how we can think about Autism Spectrum Disorders in a more accurate way.
ASD: Understanding Levels of Functioning
The first thing to clear up is that the terms “low” and “high” functioning aren’t really the preferred ways to refer to someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The fact that autism levels of functioning are on a spectrum means that there’s a fine gradient of cases, and each one falls somewhere in its own very specific spot on that spectrum. The terms “high” and “low” imply a certain idea of how these individuals behave or understand the world.
In reality, autism is just one intersecting factor in a person’s life that ties into all of the other qualities and experiences they have.
It’s better to think of these disorders in relation to their diagnoses. There are three “levels” of autism functioning, and while they’re broad categories, they’re more accurate than the ideas of “high functioning” or “low functioning.”
The lightest diagnosis on the autism spectrum is Level-1. Individuals with this diagnosis share the fact that they require support, no matter how little support they might need.
These people might need assistance interpreting social cues or learning how to communicate in a way that seems normal. Conversations and personal relationships might be more difficult than they would be for a person without autism.
Shifting between spaces can be a challenge. A sensory stimulus can also impact these individuals a little more intensely and cause unique discomfort. Further, organizational challenges prevent some people with this diagnosis from relying upon themselves.
People with Level-1 autism are often so good at adapting to their disorder that the people around them aren’t aware that they have it. In other cases, certain factors of the disorder will be very apparent.
People with Level-2 autism have more verbal and social challenges. Managing emotions in response to stimuli is a common challenge that Level-2 people deal with.
Narrowing interests and difficulty switching environments mark challenges for individuals in this group as well. Changes in the person’s schedule can be difficult and may produce a distinct emotional response.
This category of individuals often needs more support in dealing with day-to-day life. While these issues are challenging, therapies and assistance make a huge difference in keeping life manageable.
Level-3 autism is characterized by a strong need for support. The difficulties make social communication and independence very difficult.
In a lot of cases, verbal communication is inhibited by the fact that the individual doesn’t have many words to use. There’s an inflexibility in the way that people with Level-3 autism approach physical or social situations.
Changing focus based on shifting schedules and environments can produce a lot of stress. This stress is challenging and often overwhelming. These factors make it difficult to move through life in a way that doesn’t involve substantial help much of the time.
Ways to Think about These Classifications
The symptoms and behaviors listed above are narrow. Keep in mind that each symptom of an Autism Spectrum Disorder can have many faces. For example, the way that a person experiences challenges in social situations might be very different from another person with the same diagnosis.
Further, the way that two people with Level-2 autism respond to overwhelming stimuli might be very different. There are a lot of intersecting therapies, forms of assistance, and personal qualities that make individuals with these disorders appear and behave in different ways.
For example, someone with Level-2 autism might have a lot of qualities of someone without autism, but a few distinct challenges might require support. There are variations like this all across the board.
The main thing to keep in mind is that these categories are created based on the amount of support needed, not necessarily the qualities or experiences of the individual. In this way, it’s important to look at the individual instead of their diagnosis. The diagnosis doesn’t say much about them as a person.
Their challenges, thoughts, and behaviors are their own and can’t be summed up with a “Level-2” or “Level-3.”
Getting a Diagnosis
Finding a diagnosis and starting therapy early is the best way to treat symptoms of ASD. The later in life a person finds out that they have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the more difficult it will be to make advancements in treatment.
Our process of getting a diagnosis for getting levels of functioning in children with autism involves four visits. We work with you to carefully explore your child’s abilities and examine their behavior. If needed, we work with you to explore options for support, treatment, and what to do moving forward.
If you’re not sure that you need to have a test done, or you’re just curious about what to look for and how to move forward, we’re here to help you.
Interested in Scheduling a Test?
Again, getting a diagnosis and treating an Autism Spectrum Disorder early is the best way to improve your child’s quality of life in the future. We’re here to work with you and get an accurate diagnosis.
You probably have questions about different levels of functioning, and we’re here to answer them. Contact us to learn more or schedule a four-step evaluation for you and your child.