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Understanding the Levels of Autism Spectrum Disorder: Tailoring Support for Your Child’s Needs

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects people in different ways. While all autistic individuals share certain characteristics, the severity of symptoms varies widely from person to person. That’s why autism is called a spectrum disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) breaks ASD down into 3 levels based on the amount of support a person needs. Understanding these levels can help parents and caregivers tailor treatments and services to meet their child’s unique needs.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover:

  • What autism spectrum disorder is
  • The 3 levels of autism spectrum disorder
  • The characteristics of each level
  • Treatment options and supports for each level
  • How to help your child thrive with the right interventions

Plus, we’ll share an insightful call to action for parents in Maryland seeking exceptional in-home ABA therapy for their child. Let’s get started!

Understanding the Levels of Autism Spectrum Disorder
Understanding the Levels of Autism Spectrum Disorder

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. It affects how a person communicates, interacts socially, behaves, and processes sensory information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 1 in 44 children has been diagnosed with ASD as of 2020.

Some key characteristics of ASD include:

  • Difficulty with social communication and interaction
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, activities, or interests
  • Symptoms that are present in early childhood
  • Symptoms that cause significant impairment in functioning
  • Wide variation in challenges and strengths from person to person

Autism exists on a spectrum because of this wide variation in how it affects each individual. There’s no “standard” type of autism. Some autistic people have average or high intelligence and good language skills. Others may be nonverbal or have an intellectual disability. The severity of symptoms and the support needs required by each person are different across the spectrum.

The 3 Levels of Autism Spectrum Disorder

In 2013, the DSM-5 established 3 levels of autism spectrum disorder that help classify individuals based on the amount of support they need. It’s important to note that a person’s needs may change over time. But in general, the levels are:

Level 1: Requiring Support

Level 2: Requiring Substantial Support

Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support

Let’s look at each level’s diagnostic criteria and features.

Level 1: Requiring Support

Individuals with level 1 ASD have relatively mild symptoms that cause some impairment in social communication and interactions as well as restricted or repetitive behaviors. Their ability to function independently is generally pretty good.

Social communication characteristics of level 1 ASD include:

  • Difficulty initiating social interactions
  • Problems maintaining back-and-forth conversations
  • Reduced sharing of interests or emotions
  • Impaired nonverbal communication skills

Behavioral characteristics include:

  • Difficulty switching between activities
  • Distress with small changes in routine or surroundings
  • Rigid thinking patterns
  • Intense focus or preoccupation with certain interests

People with level 1 ASD are able to communicate using full sentences. They can have relationships. With the right supports, they are generally able to function well at school, work, and in the community.

Level 2: Requiring Substantial Support

Individuals with level 2 ASD have more significant social communication and behavioral challenges. They require more substantial support compared to those with level 1.

Social communication characteristics of level 2 ASD include:

  • Limited verbal communication abilities
  • Significant impairments in the ability to have conversations
  • Limited initiation of social interactions
  • Reduced or unusual response to social overtures from others
  • Poor integration of verbal and nonverbal communication

Behavioral characteristics include:

  • Inflexibility of behavior that interferes with functioning in several contexts
  • Difficulty coping with change
  • Obvious repetitive or restricted behaviors
  • Distress from interruption of specific routines or rituals

People with level 2 ASD have noticeable challenges and impairments even with support in place. Those who speak often use simple phrases or sentences and have impaired ability to have back-and-forth conversations.

Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support

Individuals with level 3 ASD have the most severe symptoms that lead to very substantial support needs.

Social communication characteristics of level 3 ASD include:

  • Severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal skills
  • Very limited initiation of social interactions
  • Minimal response to social overtures from others

Behavioral characteristics include:

  • Extreme difficulty coping with change
  • Rigid behaviors or thinking that markedly interfere with functioning in all spheres
  • Great distress from interruption of routines or rituals
  • Unusual sensory interests

People with level 3 ASD often have significant cognitive and/or language impairments. Many are nonverbal or have very limited communication abilities. They need very substantial support across all areas of life.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Treatment and Supports

There’s no medical “cure” for ASD. But with the right interventions and supports tailored to the individual, people with autism can thrive! Here are some key treatment options to consider:

  • Behavioral therapies: Applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy) uses positive reinforcement to improve communication, social, academic, adaptive, and behavioral skills. It’s considered the gold standard treatment for autism.
  • Speech therapy: For those with verbal communication challenges, speech therapy builds speaking, listening, and conversational skills.
  • Occupational therapy: OT helps with sensory issues, motor skills, independent living skills, and regulating emotions.
  • Medications: There are no medications that specifically treat the core symptoms of ASD. But medications can help manage co-occurring conditions like anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
  • Social skills training: Programs and classes that teach social rules, communication, and interpersonal skills are extremely beneficial.
  • Parent training: Parents and family members can learn techniques and strategies for promoting their child’s development.
  • Special education services: Federal law mandates that public schools provide specialized services based on the child’s needs. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) helps tailor curriculum, teaching methods, and school environment.
  • Assistive technology: Devices like tablets and visual schedulers boost communication and self-management.
  • Transition services: Adolescents and young adults benefit from focused support in pivoting to higher education, the workplace, and independent living.
  • Adult disability services: Government programs fund and coordinate services like job training, assisted living, and vocational rehab for adults with autism.

The specific treatments and therapies that help an individual will depend on the person’s age, skill level, challenges, and more. But in general, an early intensive behavioral intervention combining multiple therapies is recommended as best practice.

Helping Your Child Thrive with Exceptional ABA therapy in Maryland

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is widely regarded as the most effective autism intervention, especially when provided at an early age. ABA therapy uses techniques grounded in psychological research to improve real-life skills and reduce problem behaviors. The highly-individualized sessions focus on communication, social skills, self-care, academics, play skills, and more. ABA providers collect and analyze data to track progress.

For children with autism in Maryland, Jade ABA Therapy offers world-class in-home ABA tailored to each child’s needs. Their passionate clinicians have advanced training in ABA. They partner with families across Maryland to help kids thrive. Services are available 7 days a week with flexible scheduling.

Jade ABA Therapy’s outcomes for children are outstanding:

  • 93% of clients master toileting skills
  • 90% learn self-care and daily living skills
  • 85% improve social and communication abilities
  • 83% make academic and cognitive gains

They also coordinate seamlessly with schools to align ABA goals with IEPs. Jade ABA Therapy delivers hope to families through life-changing ABA. See why they’re Maryland’s top choice for in-home ABA therapy. Get started now by calling (410) 616-0901 or emailing info@jadeaba.org. Let them help your child gain skills, confidence, and independence!

The Takeaway

Autism spectrum disorder is a complex condition that affects each person differently. The 3 levels in the DSM-5 provide a helpful framework for understanding an individual’s support needs. Children with level 1 ASD require support. Those with level 2 need substantial support. And individuals with level 3 require very substantial support.

While autism can’t be cured, the right interventions based on the child’s needs make an enormous difference in helping them thrive. ABA therapy stands out as the most effective treatment, especially when started early. For top-quality in-home ABA in Maryland, choose Jade ABA Therapy. Their personalized ABA helps kids excel in communication, academics, adaptive abilities, social skills, and behavior. Reach out today to get started!


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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Diagnosis. (2022, August 4). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/diagnosis.html

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Hyman, S. L., Levy, S. E., & Myers, S. M. (2020, January 22). Identification, Evaluation, and Management of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pediatrics, 145(1), e20193447. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2019-3447

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Volkmar, F. R., Lord, C., Bailey, A., Schultz, R. T., & Klin, A. (2004). Autism and pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 45(1), 135–170. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.0021-9630.2003.00317.x

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder? (2022, March 25). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

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