Autism is a spectrum of closely-related disorders that share the same core symptoms, i.e. individuals who have challenges in the flexibility of behavior, empathy, social interaction, and communication. However, every individual has their combination of symptoms, which can vary greatly among people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These symptoms determine the autism treatment programs that will suit their unique capabilities and challenges, as well as help you identify signs of mild autism.
For parents dealing with children in the autism spectrum, you might have heard terms like atypical autism and high-functioning autism. The terms can be confusing, especially because different therapists and doctors may apply them differently. There isn’t a simple diagnosis for “mild autism”, which is why you need this article to explain the signs of mild autism in different children.
History of Mild Autism
Infantile autism was first defined in the 1980s, when doctors knew so little about the disease. Later on, in 1994, Asperger’s Syndrome was added to the ASD diagnostic manual, to define autistic people who were verbal, intelligent, and capable.
In 2013, the definition for Asperger’s Syndrome was scrapped, and replaced with a single description of the ASD spectrum. Individuals with ASD have varying degrees of the common symptoms of autism.
A little later, some specialists created “levels” to describe the levels of support individuals with autism need. But it is not widely used because no one can say for sure what level of support everyone in a level will need. Even two people with a similar diagnosis may need completely different interventions and support.
Today, many people still use Asperger’s Syndrome, but it doesn’t quite define what mild or high-functioning autism really is. So, how can you tell your child has signs of mild autism?
Signs of Mild Autism
In most cases, symptoms of autism show before the age of 3, but milder symptoms can go unnoticed much longer, especially for girls. However, after the age of 3, a child may not qualify for an ASD diagnosis. Instead, they will probably have a Social Communication Disorder, which is less severe. Symptoms of mild autism include:
- Problems with two-way communication, including conversation, eye contact, facial expressions, and body language.
- Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships in childhood because of difficulty in sharing interests, imaginative play, and communication.
- Preference for repetitive actions, movements, activities, words, without obvious motivation for the repetition (e.g. lining up toys repeatedly).
- Few interests that are intensely followed e.g. one video game they play over and over.
- Being hypo- or hyper-reactive to sensory inputs.
When to Seek Targeted Intervention
There is no official definition for mild autism, but the following are some common scenarios:
- When someone is clearly autistic, but they have good communication skills or other skills. This can mean doing well in school but struggling with making friends or maintaining eye contact.
- Some specialists use the euphemism to describe a child with autism who is able to communicate their needs effectively, even if they have just a few spoken words.
- Some specialist use “mild autism” to explain treatment decisions, e.g. recommending social skills development for autism through play therapy and not intensive behavioral therapy.
People with signs of mild autism may have advanced academic or communication skills. However, they often experience significant delays in social development, poor organizational skills, and severe sensory issues. This makes it harder for them to integrate into public school or work settings, even compared with individuals who have communication challenges but lesser social or sensory problems. Support from an autism treatment program can help manage these issues. Treatment can include occupational therapy for children with autism, speech therapy, or other targeted programs.
Early Intervention for Autism
All people who have mild autism will display significant sensory and developmental challenges, enough to impact normal social interactions and activities of daily life. Even for mild autism, early intervention for autism is critical to improving the child’s outcomes. Talk to your pediatrician as soon as you notice any lags in your child’s development. Early diagnosis and the right autism therapy program makes a world of difference in the child’s quality of life.