What does mild autism mean?


Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that people with it can experience a variety of symptoms , from the mildest to the most severe. Mild autism is in the lower end of this range. Those who have symptoms, but are not significant enough to require high-level support.

Mild autism is not an official medical term, so it is not used by doctors to diagnose autism. However, some therapists, teachers, parents, and others may use it to explain how severely a person has this disorder. Their definitions may vary.

For example, the term is sometimes used when a person is clearly autistic but has good oral and other skills. In other cases, people are said to have mild autism when they have advanced academic ability but struggle with social skills , sensory issues, or organization.

Mild autism is also called high-functioning autism (HFA) or "staying at the bottom of the spectrum." You may also hear some people refer to mild autism by its old official name, Asperger syndrome .

This article will explain what mild autism is and how the definition has changed over time. It also explains the signs of mild autism and provides information on treatment options.

Illustration by Emily Roberts, Get Drug Information

An evolving definition

The meaning of mild autism has changed in recent decades. This is one of the reasons why different people use the term differently today.

In the 80s

In the 1980s, autism was known as childhood autism . It was considered a serious disabling condition .

No distinction was made between people with mild and severe symptoms. People with autism were not expected to do well in school, make friends, or have a job.

In the 1990s

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

People with autism, socializers, and intelligent people have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. They have been called " highly functional ". This means that someone has better communication and social skills than other people with autism symptoms.

From the 2010s to the present

In 2013, a new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM-5 ) was published. This is the guide that doctors use today.

Asperger syndrome is no longer a diagnosis in the DSM-5. Instead, the guide only provides a diagnosis for all people with symptoms of autism: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) .

People with ASD have problems with social communication. They can resist changes in daily routines and be hypersensitive to noise, smell, touch, and other types of sensory sensations. These problems can range from mild to severe.

All people with mild symptoms and people with severe speech delay or sensory problems are diagnosed with ASD.

The DSM-5 defines the "level of support" that a person with autism may need. These functional levels vary from 1 to 3 depending on the severity of autism, with 1 corresponding to people who need the least support due to mild symptoms.

However, few people outside of the medical community name someone with Level 1 autism . The terms Asperger syndrome or mild autism are still often used today.


Mild autism is synonymous with high-functioning autism. Some people still use the term Asperger syndrome to describe those who have mild symptoms. Doctors, however, refer to mild autism as level 1 autism .

Symptoms of mild autism

Everyone diagnosed with ASD has certain developmental and sensory problems. Even people with mild autism can have symptoms that interfere with normal activities and relationships.

Symptoms of autism include:

  • Back and forth communication problems: It can be difficult to carry on a conversation, use or understand body language, eye contact, and facial expressions.
  • Difficulty developing and maintaining relationships: Children may have difficulties with creative play, making friends, or sharing interests.
  • Repeating the same actions, actions, movements or words: they can organize objects or perform other actions over and over again, even if there is no obvious reason for it.
  • Self-stimulating behavior: This is also called stimulation . They may stagger back and forth, hum, walk, or wave their arms, which may seem unusual to others.
  • Limited interests but deep knowledge: An autistic child only cares about a few things, but will know everything there is to know about them.
  • Be extremely sensitive or indifferent to sensations: The person may be extremely sensitive (hyper-reactive) to the sensation of the material on their skin, be unable to bear loud sounds, or have a strong reaction to other sensory sensations. On the other hand, some may not notice changes in sensations (hyporesponsiveness), such as extreme heat or cold.

In mild autism, some symptoms can seem subtle, while others can be quite noticeable.

For example, a person with mild autism may:

  • Being able to speak, but has trouble talking back and forth.
  • Try to make friends, although they may fail because they seem "strange" to others.
  • Complete school assignments or age-appropriate assignments, but find it difficult to change activities or try new ways of doing things

Symptoms can vary from person to person. It is also important to consider that they can be influenced by where the person with autism is (for example, at home or at school) and who is with them.

How is autism diagnosed

If you or your pediatrician believe your child is showing symptoms of autism, they will refer him to a specialist who treats ASD . Specialists may include child psychologists, child psychiatrists, child neurologists, or developmental pediatricians.

The specialist will look at your child's medical history. Your child may be offered tests to assess intelligence, behavior patterns, communication and social skills, and developmental history. They may include:

Before DSM-5, a child had to show delays in social interaction and communication until the age of three to be diagnosed with autism. Now there is a little more flexibility. It's just that the symptoms must be present from a "young age."

This may be too strict for people with mild symptoms. For them, the signs may not be obvious until they get older and they clearly cannot communicate with other people their own age. Late diagnosis is especially common in girls.

Girls with autism are less likely to do the same thing and behave less violently than boys. They are more likely to be considered shy and withdrawn, which parents and teachers might consider “ expected '' for girls in general, meaning they will not be diagnosed any longer.

Mild autism can go undetected for years, so some people are not tested until they are adults. Adults often see a psychologist or psychiatrist who understands ASD. They may be assigned a special test to assess their symptoms called a Diagnostic, Measurement and Development Interview – Adult Version (3Di-Adult).

Levels of autism

The DSM-5 describes three functional levels of autism. Provides guidelines that doctors use to determine how much support a person with ASD needs. People who need minimal support in their daily life are diagnosed with level 1 (mild autism).

The support a person with level 1 autism needs may include:

  • Building self-control
  • Controlling emotions
  • Be flexible
  • Two-way communication skills development.
  • Understand non-verbal communication
  • Reduced anxiety

The amount of support people with mild autism need depends on many factors and varies from person to person.


The specialist will evaluate the child with signs of autism by performing tests to rule out other possible causes. If ASD is diagnosed, the level of support needed will be determined. A low level means a diagnosis of ASD level 1 (mild autism). Mild signs are sometimes missed, especially in girls. People who are diagnosed with ASD in adulthood often have mild autism that goes unnoticed for many years.

Watch out

Treatment for people with mild autism depends a lot on their age. Children and adolescents need different support than adults.

Treatment for children

Children often need a very structured daily routine. Parents can work with a team of professionals to give their children the support they need at school and at home.

Children with ASD require a learning plan that is tailored to their individual needs. They may also need social skills training , mental health counseling, special diets, and motor assistance.

As with any type of autism, appropriate treatment for mild autism can include a variety of treatments. The type of support needed may change over time, but may include any of the following:

  • Behavioral therapy : This type of therapy uses rewards to teach expected or preferred behaviors.
  • Play or developmental therapy: This therapy uses play activities to develop communication and emotional skills.
  • Speech therapy : In mild autism, speech therapy is generally associated with speech and body language skills.
  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapy often helps with sensory problems.
  • Physical therapy Many children with autism have low muscle tone or struggle with physical activity.
  • Drug therapy : There are medications that treat symptoms such as anxiety and mood disorders that may be associated with mild autism.

Some children with autism also need treatment for comorbid problems such as seizures, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder , and other problems. These problems are not part of autism, but they are more common in this group.

Treatment for adults

Structure and predictability are also important for adults with high-functioning autism . Support can include:

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


Asperger's syndrome , high-functioning autism, and mild autism generally mean the same thing – a person's autism symptoms are not severe. There is no separate diagnosis of mild autism, but doctors classify people with autism spectrum disorder by levels. Level 1 means that your symptoms are mild.

People with level 1 autism have difficulty communicating and interacting with others. They may also have trouble changing their daily routine, or they may be sensitive to sounds, pain, tastes, or other sensations.

However, even within this group, symptoms differ from person to person. The type of treatment a person needs depends on their individual symptoms. As you get older or your symptoms change, your treatment plan may need to change.

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