Toddlers with Level 1 Autism playing with colorful blocks.

Did you know that the English language changes constantly? Each year, words are added and removed from the dictionary; meanings change, and even slang and jargon seem to change (for example, the terms or slang that we thought were “cool” when we were kids are not the slang words used today).

All languages evolve and adapt over time to fit the needs of their users, or speakers. The same rule applies to the terminology used to describe specific medical conditions or diagnoses. As you may know, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term used to describe a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. But if you have been in the Autism community for quite some time, then you may be aware of some of the changes that have been made and the terms that are no longer used.

In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) updated the criteria for an ASD diagnosis to include three distinct levels. Every individual who is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder is further diagnosed with one of the following: ASD level 1, ASD level 2, or ASD level 3.

Each level of Autism varies on the level of support that the individual will need (which may change with time), but today we will focus on diagnoses and what level 1 autism in toddlers may look like.

Five Types of Autism

Before 2013, autism was categorized into five levels that were also based on severity. The five levels of autism are outdated terms and are no longer recognized in the medical world or used as proper diagnoses. Still, the terms are widely used within the community for people who were diagnosed before 2013. The former types of autism include:

  • Asperger's Syndrome
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
  • Classic Autistic Disorder or Kanner's Syndrome
  • Rett Syndrome

Three Levels of ASD

Unlike the previous terms, the updated levels of ASD do not have individual names, nor are they particular “syndromes.” The three levels of an ASD diagnosis are categorized by the level of severity or required assistance that the individual will need.

Signs of autism are typically noticed or observed by parents within the first few years of age, after they notice that the child may be taking a bit longer to reach developmental milestones like speaking, going to the bathroom, etc.

Once the child is diagnosed with ASD, an accompanying level of ASD will most likely be included. Level 1 is a mild case where individuals require little or no assistance; level 2 is moderate and may require substantial assistance for specific daily tasks; Level 3 would be the most severe and require almost full-time support.

Level 1 Autism in Toddlers

If your child has recently been diagnosed with Level 1 ASD, you might wonder what to expect or what that means for your child, especially if they are toddler-aged. It’s important to note that just because there are hallmark symptoms and required criteria for the diagnosis, level 1 Autism in toddlers may look different from one child to another. However, here is a list of some common traits or behaviors that you may see:

  • Difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Repetitive or restrictive behaviors
  • Picky eating
  • Stereotypic behavior ( spins, rocks, sways, twirls or taps fingers, toe walking, hand flapping)
  • Lining objects up (books, toys, etc.)
  • May not respond to their name or to spoken words
  • Delayed milestones (learning how to go to the bathroom, speaking)
  • Dropping items to watch them fall
  • Sensory sensitivity to smells, sounds, lights, textures, and touch
  • Prefers being alone rather than playing with other kids
  • May have unusual use of vision like looking at objects from unusual angles
  • Lacks eye contact
  • Losing interest quickly

Level 1 autism in toddlers is considered a mild diagnosis. It is a good idea for parents to develop routines and habits that will help to improve ASD symptoms that may eventually cause stress to the child. Stress is often the cause of other symptoms like autistic meltdowns, so having a system in place may help reduce stressful situations. Some parents look to behavioral therapy; others have found success by addressing nutritional deficits with the help of Simple Spectrum Nutritional Supplements or DHA Supplements.

If any of these behaviors occur, parents should take their child to a physician to be properly evaluated and diagnosed. Only the doctor will be able to identify the level of ASD that will be diagnosed in your child.