Autism is a spectrum disorder. That means that people with autism can differ from one another and still have an autism spectrum diagnosis (ASD). 

There are people on the autism spectrum who are unable to speak, write, or self advocate. They may be self-abusive or aggressive to others, and quite genuinely dangerous to live with. There are people on the autism spectrum who are brilliant public speakers and authors, who travel the world as the honored guests of major universities and international associations.

The reality is that, while everyone on the autism spectrum does share challenges in social communication, those at the mild end and those at the severe end will have vast differences.  

Where Does Your Child Fall on the Autism Spectrum? 

At this point you probably realized that there's no easy answer to the question. The reality is that your child probably falls in different places depending upon the circumstances and expectations placed on him or her. That said, though, here are a few ways to define "mild" and "severe" autism:

  • Very Mild: Your child is able to communicate verbally at age level. He plays WITH (rather than near) other children, and may even collaborate from time to time. His challenges may make certain interactions and activities difficult, but he is still able to take part in most typical school and social activities with minimal support. He has difficulty with social pragmatics (telling/getting jokes, understanding sarcasm, etc.).
  • Mild. Your child can communicate verbally at age level, though some language may be idiosyncratic. She is able to learn effectively in a typical classroom with some support.Play skills may be erratic: sometimes she plays with others, but she may find it hard to keep up with complex pretend play. She is aware of her differences and may feel bullied or marginalized by her peers. She may have significant sensory challenges (extreme responses to heat, cold, pain, sound, light, etc.).
  • Moderate: Your child can communicate verbally, but not at age level. His language skills are obviously compromised, though he can use words to communicate needs, wants, etc. He finds it difficult or even impossible to manage the complex demands of a typical classroom, though he may have some areas of real academic strength. He may or may not have significant sensory challenges. If he is in a typical school setting, he may be tolerated but is rarely included socially. He is likely to "melt down" when overwhelmed or frustrated.
  • Moderately Severe: Your child has limited verbal skills, and may copy phrases from TV or movies rather than craft her own language. She may have intellectual challenges that make it impossible to learn in a typical classroom (though she may have areas of relative strength). She may have challenging behaviors such as flapping, pacing, or noise-making that get in the way of inclusion in typical school and community activities. She may also have related challenges such as a very limited diet, extreme anxiety, etc.
  • Severe. Your child has little or no useful spoken language. He may have severe intellectual challenges (based on typical IQ tests which may or may not be terribly relevant). Behaviors may be difficult to manage, and may even include aggression and/or self-abuse. It is unlikely that your child is able to function in a typical school setting (even in a special needs classroom), but he is likely to learn new skills and gain new interests in a small, therapeutic setting. It may be difficult or even impossible to take your child out of his comfort zone and include him in typical community activities.
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