Mild Autism: Can A Child Be Slightly Autistic?

Today you’ll learn how what it means to be mildly autistic and what to do about it.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 20, 2023
min read

Characteristics of Mild Autism

Mild autism can present itself through a wide range of behaviors. In fact, someone with mild autism may display behaviors that differ entirely from the behaviors of another person with it.

Even more, a person with mild autism may only have one behavior or actually display most or all of the behaviors that signal this condition. With that, the phrase “on the (autism) spectrum” is often used to describe people who may have mild autism.

Moreover, it is vital that parents or guardians of people who show such behaviors strive to obtain confirmation of mild autism.

Confirmation of this condition serves as the foundation of securing behavioral, physical or occupation therapy that can help people with it integrate and function better in society.

With that, parents and guardians should look for signs of mild autism, which include:

  • Unexpected reactions to certain sounds, smells, sights or textures
  • Tantrums or explosive anger to unexpected or illogical triggers
  • Difficulties with expressing one's needs, wants or ideas
  • Echolalia, or repetitive verbal expressions or play
  • Fixations on certain ideas, concepts or activities
  • Reluctance to or difficulties with disrupting one's routine or trying new things
  • Aversions to cuddling, hugging or engaging in other similar interactions
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Reluctance or refusal to engage in conversations
  • Inability to pick up on physical or verbal clues
  • Difficulties perceiving other people's emotions
  • Avoiding talking about feelings
  • Preferring to be left alone or isolation from other people

These behaviors can signal that a person may have mild autism. They can also alert parents and caretakers to the fact the person may need therapeutic services to adjust or overcome them to function better in everyday life.

What Makes Autism “Mild?”

People with mild autism receive a diagnosis of Level 1 autism. People who are diagnosed with Level 1 autism have the lowest level of support needs. Many people with Level 1 autism are not diagnosed until they reach adulthood.

Still, people with Level 1 autism may struggle with initiating conversations or relationships with other people. They also may not be interested in starting or maintaining relationships with others who are their neurological peers.

In fact, despite needing the least amount of support, people with Level 1 autism may prefer to adhere to a stringent and set routine. These individuals have difficulties deviating from their preferred routines and may not function well in everyday life if any changes are made to them.

Level 1 autistic individuals likewise may have troubles making transitions, such as going to a new school or seeing a new doctor.

They also may struggle with organizing or planning things in their everyday life. They typically need assistance from parents or caretakers with such tasks.

Finally, like people who are not autistic, people with Level 1 autism may experience differing levels of support on a regular basis. When their lives are relatively not stressful and predictable, they may be able to function relatively well with little to no help from other people.

However, when their lives become stressful and hectic, these individuals may need more support from parents, caretakers and others. They are at a higher risk of what is known as autistic burnout, which occurs during periods of transition, unexpected events or times of high stress. People with Level 1 autism may need more direction and hands-on assistance to get through these times and get back to a period of calm where they can function well on their own again.

Diagnosing Mild Autism

Mental health and medical professionals use a variety of resources to diagnose mild autism. The process of diagnosing someone with this condition can start, for example, with a diagnostic interview.

A professional evaluator conducts this interview with either the patient or the patient's parents or caretakers. It is designed to obtain information about the person's symptoms, family history and early development.

Evaluators may also use what is called the Autism Spectrum Rating Scale, or ASRS. This tool entails observation of the patient, using forms from either or both teachers and parents to identify behaviors of mild autism.

This resource is most often used on children ages two to 18. The scores from it are compared to the scores of other children to determine whether or not the patient has mild autism.

Another option professional evaluators may use to assist in making a diagnosis is the ADI-R, or Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised. This diagnostic resource is used to assess mild autism symptoms for patients ages four through adulthood. It evaluates how well patients communicate and in what behaviors they engage to determine if they might be mildly autistic.

The ADOS=2, or Autistic Diagnostic Observation Schedule-2 likewise evaluates the communication and social skills of people with suspected mild autism. The modules of the ADOS-2 are designed to test the symptoms of children and teenagers. However, they are also routinely used to assess adult patients as well.

Finally, evaluators may use a resource known as DISCO, or the Diagnostic Interview for Social and Communication Disorders. This interview can be used for both children and adults. It is designed to be a structured interview that asks questions about certain behaviors and levels of functioning to make a positive diagnosis of mild autism.

Causes of Mild Autism

Scientists are not entirely sure what causes mild autism. They suspect that factors like parents' ages and taking certain medications like valproic acid during pregnancy may contribute to this condition. However, no scientific research has decisively pinpointed specific causes for it.

Still, evidence shows mild autism is more likely to occur in boys than girls. Likewise, children with older siblings or one or both parents with this condition are more prone to show symptoms of it. It additionally occurs more often in children born with conditions like Fragile X syndrome.

Treatment and Support for Mild Autism

People who have mild autism need professional treatment and support to function successfully at school and work and in everyday life. The type of support and treatment they need can depend on whether they are a child or adult. The level of assistance and care they receive can also vary over time and change as their symptoms improve or regress.

Children with mild autism, for example, typically benefit from a structured routine.

They do well when details of their everyday lives are planned out to specific times or days of the week.

They also routinely need individual educational plans or IEPs at school that are tailored to their specific learning capabilities and behaviors. Their parents or caretakers, doctors, teachers and therapists all work together to design these IEPs for students with mild autism.

Further, children with mild autism benefit from a variety of types of therapy like:

  • Speech
  • Play or developmental
  • Occupational
  • Physical
  • Mental

They may also need medical treatment for conditions that can accompany mild autism, such as:

  • GI disorders
  • Anxiety
  • OCD
  • Sleep disorders
  • Seizures

Adults with mild autism likewise need treatment and support to help them live successfully in everyday life. Their support may come in the form of wearing headphones at work to cancel out noises that can trigger mild autism symptoms.

They also may need cognitive behavioral therapy to help them identify and manage triggers that can set off behaviors like stimming or repetitive actions. They can benefit from this therapy to learn how to take charge of their everyday lives and finances and also manage transitions and unexpected changes successfully.

Coping with Mild Autism

People who have mild autism, or parents and caretakers of people with mild autism, can use a variety of measures to cope with this condition competently.

To start, parents or caretakers of children with mild autism should ensure their children remain on as much of a set schedule as possible. They should also ensure children with this condition continue to take medications for autism-associated conditions like anxiety, sleep disorders or OCD.

Likewise, people of all ages with mild autism can benefit from engaging in exercise to manage their symptoms better. Exercises like swimming or simply going for a walk can ease anxiety and redirect negative behaviors toward more positive aspects of daily life.

Further, sensory or “fidget” toys like spinners or squeeze balls can help people with mild autism cope better with their symptoms everyday. These gadgets provide distraction and create sensations like vibrations or spinning that can be soothing for someone with mild autism to experience.

Of course, for many people with mild autism, coping with this condition would not be possible without regular therapy sessions. People who have mild autism typically benefit from therapy sessions that are held weekly, if not more often.

Finally, people with autism often benefit from either listening to or playing music. It allows them to focus on the music and less on behaviors that can impede their ability to function well at work, school and in everyday life.

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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