Fighting First Impressions

Posted: March 18th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Autism | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

I ran across an academic paper that reviewed research into “thin slice judgments” of autistic people by neurotypical people. (It can also be downloaded and saved as a PDF for those who might prefer to do so.) For those who might not have encountered the term before, thin slice judgments are the ones we make very quickly and with minimal exposure when encountering another person. They represent our ‘gut feeling’ about someone or what we often describe as our ‘first impression’. It’s often an unconscious reaction rather than anything we consider. And the results of these studies were pretty telling. Neurotypical thin slice judgments of autistic people tend to be negative. The studies were constructed differently, but all revealed the same underlying bias.

Specifically, we are viewed as people our allistic peers are less likely to speak to, sit near, or spend time with. We are perceived as more awkward, more unapproachable, less dominant, and less likable. It’s important to recognize that the nature of thin slice judgments is that they are based on extremely minimal input. They are, however, powerful. It’s those very early judgments that determine how likely we are to interact with someone at all or for more than a few seconds. The first study even included different modalities and the only one that didn’t show a difference was when the participants were reading a written transcript.

I very much doubt that’s exactly a surprise to any of my autistic peers. We know we are treated differently. We’re familiar with all the social barriers we face. And for those of us who were late diagnosed, that was true long before we had any idea we were autistic. However, this study illustrates that it’s not as simple as autistic “social deficits” on our part. Thin slice judgments are not based on any actual social interaction. These are the unconscious judgments before any meaningful interaction or even any interaction whatsoever occurs.

As a result, autistic people are constantly fighting an uphill battle against those negative first impressions. Since some of those judgments are whether or not someone will even sit with us or speak to us, it’s an ongoing struggle just to engage with our allistic peers. We’re fighting against their thin slice judgments.

For me, that helps explain why all my work learning social rules, practicing verbal tone and inflection, rehearsing facial expressions, and studying acting has always been insufficient. Thin slice judgments come into play before any of those can be brought to bear. A lot of the time I never even get the chance to employ the varied social skills I’ve developed. It’s not unusual for me to be in a crowded social setting and have nobody speak to me at all. Sometimes I’ll make an effort, with varying degrees of success, to initiate conversations with people. But I can also go a whole evening with nobody in a crowd of strangers or almost strangers ever interacting with me.

I found this paper personally helpful. It’s good to know that it’s not just my imagination. And it’s good to know that it’s based on their judgments rather than anything I’ve actually done or said. But it’s also somewhat discouraging. I’m already at a disadvantage when actively interacting and engaging with the larger neurotypical world. I also have to climb out of a hole dug by their negative first impressions before I can even get to the starting line. And there’s no learned skill or strategy that can alter thin slice judgments. Extended interaction always gives you the chance to overcome and reverse them. But the nature of thin slice judgments is that they have a lot to do with whom people choose to interact in the first place.

I find this search of research helpful. Your mileage may vary, of course.


The Struggle to Be

Posted: October 28th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Autism, Personal | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments »

My counselor asked a question yesterday that stumped me. “If you had a magic wand, what you would want your life to be like?” Those sorts of questions have always been a challenge for me. I can imagine, even vividly imagine, all sorts of alternatives. In fact, I did that as a child, picking a point in the past and then focusing my mind on the idea that everything since that point had been a dream. But such questions always have a sense of unreality to them for me, especially the older I’ve gotten.

This is the life I have. A ‘me’ who had a different life wouldn’t actually be me. It’s a version of the disconnect I’ve felt when I’ve heard other adults who were teen parents say they regretted it, missed the life they could have had, and wished they had done something else. Was it hard being a teen parent? Sure. Sometimes it was incredibly hard. But saying I regret it or I wish it hadn’t happened feels to me like saying I wish my oldest daughter had never been born. In fact, if you follow the thread of my life, it’s basically saying I regret all my children. While I might have still had children, those hypothetical other children wouldn’t be the ones I actually have today. I deeply love all my children, and no matter how hard things have gotten, there has never been a day I’ve regretted their birth.

And the same is true of the rest of life. There’s good and bad. Some things are hard. There have been and continue to be struggles, but I don’t want a different life, per se, though I do want to live this one better. The bad things are just as much a part of who I am today as the good.

I was reminded of my blank-faced stare when my wife has asked me what I dream of doing now that the kids are grown. I enjoy discussing possible future trips with her. I enjoy doing things like the arts and food scene. But I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ or some similar set of dreams I need to achieve to make my life complete. And I have a hard time understanding the point, even though everyone around me seems to intuitively grasp it. If there’s something you want to do, start making a plan and then execute the plan. Until you’re ready to do that, what’s the point in creating a list? (Now lists that you actually plan to complete I totally understand, but that doesn’t seem to be what most people mean when asking about future dreams.)

Still, I stopped and gave the question serious consideration and, haltingly, honed in on one of my underlying struggles. I’m not really dissatisfied with my life. I want to improve my relationships with my older children. I need to work out how to relate better with my wife. I’m not a super social person, but I know I’ve been happier in the past when I’ve had at least one pretty close friend. That’s true even though it hasn’t happened very frequently and all such friendships have tended to fade for reasons I still don’t really understand. And my friendships have faded even when I’ve actually tried as hard as I could to keep them going.  While aspects of my job are extremely wearing, I enjoy the technical challenges it presents. I love learning and my job basically demands constant learning.

There aren’t really any drastic changes I would make to my life, magic wand or not. For the most part, this life fits me. That is, it would if I could actually live it. And it’s with that realization, I understood one aspect of my struggle.

It’s taking all the energy I have, and on some days more than I have, just to survive. Everything seems to require more effort. It’s hard to focus my attention without getting distracted. It’s hard to keep everything organized. And it’s harder than ever to limit the pull of things that aren’t part of what I need to do in that moment. Dealing with change and interruptions to routine are more difficult to manage now. It takes more effort to maintain an appropriate physical presentation and not do things that appear ‘odd’ to most people. I struggle more and more to process things I hear. The delays in my response are almost always noticeable now. Light is increasingly painful. Bright sun is barely tolerable even with my sunglasses and hats. Night driving makes it feel like headlights are stabbing into my eyes. And even in one on one social interactions, I find I often can’t keep up. Trying to catch all the social cues and provide the right responses has become incredibly draining.

Moreover, it’s been getting worse for a long time now, even though I had no idea what was happening. A decade ago I discovered I had sleep apnea, so I blamed my struggles on that. And I’m sure it was a factor, but it was exacerbating the problem, not causing it. Moreover, once it was controlled, things started sliding downhill again. Then I thought it was the damage I suffered as an undiagnosed celiac. And again, I’m sure that was a factor. Being sick and chronically malnourished will drain your energy and make life difficult. But it’s been seven years, I’m pretty much healed, and celiac disease is no longer a significant factor.

Yet I’m still hanging on by my fingernails. By the time I do the things I have to do each day, I’m so exhausted I’m asleep almost as soon as my head hits the pillow. (Staying asleep is another matter, altogether, but that’s not the point of this post.) I’m hardly managing anything more than the minimum I need to do to get by and even that’s a struggle most days. I’m so deeply tired down to my bones that even the thought of that next thing I need to do often fills me with dread.

Objectively, while crises still arise as they do for all of us, my life is actually calmer now than it ever has been in the past. It’s not like things have gotten harder and it’s taxing my ability to cope. Things have gotten easier. I’ve gotten healthier. And simply living life has gotten harder for me. Each day is a hill and the hills keep getting steeper with no respite and no end in sight.

I don’t know why simply being has gotten so much harder than it once was. But if I had a magic wand, that’s where I would apply it. Unfortunately, no such wand exists, so I’m left looking for more mundane responses. My tendency, of course, is to simply push through. I have a relentless will and I can and have pushed myself when I thought I had nothing left. The problem, of course, is that the well is finite. At a certain point, I can’t just bull through anymore. And I feel like I’m reaching a place where something has to give.

I have no answers, but I did come up with a response to the question and, I think, a revealing response. I pretty much have the life I want if I could actually live it rather than just survive it.


What Does It Mean to Need Support?

Posted: September 28th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Autism, Personal | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

In my final post, at least for now, on the DSM-5 autism spectrum diagnostic criteria, I wanted to touch on the other elements outside Sections A and B as well as what it means to me to need support.

First, it’s important to note that Section A and B criteria can be manifested currently or by history. That’s why my complete meltdowns at changes in my room at a young age requiring psychiatric intervention are directly relevant. Moreover, elements of the criteria need to be in evidence from a young age. The autism spectrum is related to the way our brains work and it’s pretty much the way our brains are formed in utero. It’s highly genetic, but there’s some environmental influence. However, the environment in this case is in the womb or even earlier. There’s no evidence I’ve found of epigenetic triggers after birth. Since so many of the symptoms relate to active behavior and social interaction it’s usually not evident to parents and others until a child is at least 2-3 years old. And it’s been shown that autistic people can regress and lose skills they’ve managed to learn or have certain behaviors intensify at different points in life.

In order to be diagnosed, the symptoms as a whole must limit or impair everyday functioning in our broader neurotypical world in some way. I’ve probably coped amazingly well from the perspective of some autistic people. I know the counselor I’ve just started seeing often appears pretty surprised at my accomplishments. But as I hope my posts have shown, my functioning has still been limited and impaired pretty severely. We can try to imagine a world where the ways our brains work would not be limiting, but that’s not the world in which we live today. And in our actual world, it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone could be autistic and not struggle to function in at least some areas of their life.

And finally, the disturbances can’t be better explained by something else. In my case, I surprisingly don’t have any comorbidities that reach a diagnostic threshold. It seems that most autistic people at least have something like ADHD as well. In discussing my results, my diagnostician commented that I came as close to “pure autism” as anyone she has ever assessed. So there’s no other explanation for my experience.

And that moves us to the other feature of the DSM-5 criteria. Once you meet the diagnostic criteria, a level of severity for both Section A and Section B must be assigned. And those move from simply “requiring support” at level 1 to “requiring substantial support” at level 2 to “requiring very substantial support” at level 3. And that’s quite a range. It includes people like me who can mostly function independently all the way to people who require around the clock care.

I’m diagnosed at level 1 for both sections, so I’ve been reflecting on what it means for me to require support. In order to do that honestly, I’ve had to revise my own self-image. I’ve always considered myself highly capable and competent and I am in certain contexts. But I’ve also never lived alone for any significant period of time and if I’m brutally honest with myself, it’s not at all clear how well that would go. I’ve always had people who, even in an abusive relationship like my second marriage, still helped me manage day to day life. I’ve relied on my wife for most of my adult life (28 years, 26 married) far more than I’ve ever admitted or acknowledged even to myself. Could I have survived on my own? Probably? I think? But without that daily support, life would have been immensely more challenging. My life was undeniably something of a mess when she entered it.

And I’ve also received informal accommodation in different ways at work. I never thought of it that way. I just considered it negotiating the environment that would allow me to produce more effectively. And the results have been … impressive, I guess. When I get the circumstances right, I can accomplish quite a bit, which is probably why my employer has usually been fine with my idiosyncrasies. Results really do matter in my field. But it wouldn’t be honest to say I could have done what I’ve done without the support from those informal accommodations. I truly needed them in a way, again, that I never really acknowledged to myself.

It’s humbling to realize how much you’ve minimized the support you needed in daily life and exaggerated your self-sufficiency in your own mind. Nevertheless, I have to acknowledge that the description “requiring support” and the details in the associated table form a pretty accurate description of my life.

I do need support. And I always have.


Social Deficits

Posted: September 26th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Autism, Personal | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

The Section A criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM-5 address “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts” and all three criteria must be present for a diagnosis. However, these criteria address broad categories that can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. Since much of what I’ll likely write about my experiences in future posts will, I’m sure, reflect difficulties with social interaction, I’m not going to explore each criterion individually in separate posts. Unlike Section B, which took more digging into my history and peeling back my compensating and masking behaviors, the Section A criteria were pretty obvious very early in my assessment. My wife apparently scored them even higher in one of the initial assessment questionnaires than I did. Basically, Section A covers three broad areas.

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity
  2. Deficits in non-verbal communicative behaviors
  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships

Even after explicitly and intentionally studying the rules of social communication for decades, I still routinely miss the mark. Sometimes I can quickly cover the slip based on the other person’s reaction. Sometimes I’m completely unaware of it and only know because my wife asks me about it afterwards. She’s been doing that for most of the 28 years we’ve been together even though neither of us had a clue I was autistic. I was just “socially awkward”. I also rarely know the appropriate emotional response. It’s not that I don’t care. I normally care deeply, even around people I don’t know well. Rather, my own emotional response is difficult to decipher, so my affect rarely reflects what I actually feel. I try to approximate an appropriate affect for the situation, but my success varies. I also struggle to understand what others are feeling. And even when I can work out what I’m feeling and can make a reasonable guess of what the other person is feeling, I still struggle to work out the proper thing to do or say. I have a strong tendency to monopolize conversations or to complete withdraw from them because I can’t tell when I’m supposed to speak or allow another to speak. And group social conversations are almost impossible. I do very well in presentations and public speaking, but those situations have relatively little reciprocity.

I struggle all the time to understand body language and expressions. Despite my lifelong practice at body language and expressions, mine are still atypical at best. When I forget to manage them, they actually convey unintended meanings and emotions I do not feel to others. My eye contact ranges from very poor when trying to say anything that’s hard for me to express to overly fixated when I’m trying to appear normal. It’s rarely typical. I have difficulty controlling my tone and volume. It varies from overly loud to too quiet based on feedback from others. I usually can’t tell myself.

And relationships have long been an issue. The bullying I actually remember from childhood was from people I thought were friends. I remember those all too common incidents because they made no sense. I think I was mocked and bullied by kids who weren’t my friends as well, but none of that sticks in my mind. Those people didn’t matter to me. For instance, there’s the day in, I think, 2nd grade where two of my friends held my arms while the third punched me in the stomach. From my perspective, it came out of nowhere. And it’s one of a number of incidents that have been fixed in my mind my whole life because I could never explain them. Now I at least understand that I missed all the social cues leading up to those reactions. I still don’t understand them, but I know I never will. The information necessary for the full context simply isn’t anywhere in my memories.

I’ve also been taken advantage of repeatedly in my life, sometimes in some pretty negative ways, because of my difficulty in this area. I guess I’m a pretty easy mark for con men. Looking back, I realize my early romantic relationships (including my first two teen marriages) were even more unusual than I had thought. Despite enormous desire and effort on my part, my relationships with my children have had mixed results. I seem to have gotten better at it over time since my youngest two remain close. My relationship with my older children is not what I would like, but I still don’t know how to improve it.

And I realize I don’t have any of the very long-term friendships almost everyone else seems to have. Everybody I know who is roughly my age or older has at least one or two close friends going back decades, often to high school or college. They may live in different places and talk infrequently, but when they do they are as close as ever. And they stay in touch and have for all those years. My father-in-law still keeps in touch with some friends going back 50 or 60 years! Those sorts of friendships are such a common and broadly shared phenomenon, they even come up in casual social conversations. But when I take stock, I have none.

That’s not to say that I have no friends. I think I get along relatively well with people and can move past the casual acquaintance level to one where we share things more broadly. So I can cross that threshold, but most of my friends remain situational. That is, we share a particular social context and get along within the confines of that context pretty well, sharing things about each other that go beyond the immediate context of our connection. But we don’t really connect outside that context, and when the connection through that particular social context ends, we go our separate ways. A few times in my life, I’ve managed to forge a friendship that is deeper than a particular situational context and which has endured on its own for a number of years. And yet, those have all eventually faded for reasons I don’t understand. I know friendships come and go for everyone, but usually there are at least a few that endure for most people.

The one enduring, voluntary relationship I have is with my wife and I’m extraordinarily grateful for her. She’s helped me navigate life and it’s difficult to see how I would be where I am without her. I quite literally can’t imagine what my life would have looked like if she hadn’t been with me every step of the way. My life was certainly a pretty thorough mess before she dove in head first and with her eyes open.

The social issues are where being autistic really bothers me. At this juncture in my life, I’ve developed a pretty good set of tools and supports to manage the restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior and interest outlined in Section B. The diagnosis gives me insight to further refine and improve that toolkit and seek additional support where I might need it. But my very best efforts have mostly just managed to get me through social interactions. I’ve survived, but I certainly have not thrived. And I wouldn’t have tried so hard for so long if it didn’t matter to me. If anything, my diagnosis has opened my eyes and made me realize I haven’t even done as well as I thought I was doing. And I didn’t think I was doing very well at all.

Deficit can be seen as a hard word, but I experience my social issues as real deficits. So I think it’s also an accurate word.


Overwhelming Senses

Posted: September 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Autism, Personal | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

The final criterion of Section B of the DSM V involves sensory issues.

Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.

These vary a lot from individual to individual, but I haven’t run across anyone autistic yet who doesn’t struggle with sensory input to some degree. Personally, I have a mix of hyper and hypo sensitivities, but it’s taken a while for me to identify them. I’ve lived with them so long and adapted where I could so thoroughly that I didn’t even think of them as sensory input issues, per se.

Let’s start with the most obvious. I’m very hypersensitive to light and visual input. I wear sunglasses on cloudy days, dusk, and other conditions where most people don’t. And bright light always hurts even through sunglasses, squinted eyes, and a hat brim. If I have to spend an extended period in bright light with no sunglasses, I will develop a stabbing headache. I’m also not fond of the flickering of fluorescent lights and headlights when driving at night blind me and are painful. I’ve learned to look at the painted markings on the road to steer where possible. If there’s too much happening visually it can be hard to focus and visual input will distract me. I can’t talk on the phone while the TV is on. I have to close my eyes or turn away.

I’m both hypo and hyper reactive to sound. I have a tendency to tune sound out and I don’t process verbal information particularly well on first hearing. At the same time, I’m easily distracted by sounds and have difficulty filtering them out when, for instance, trying to work in the office or have a conversation in a restaurant. At work, I’ve used headphones since the early days of the walkman in the 80s.

I’m also hypo and hyper reactive to taste. A few things would make me gag in the past, notably what my diagnostician called ‘silky firm’ textures like mushrooms and tofu. I’ve since trained myself so I can eat them, though I wouldn’t say I really like them. But I also seek out strong flavors. As a child, I would eat whole lemons, rind and all, for the strong sour taste. (Actually, even as an adult, I would squeeze lemon into my tea and then eat the whole slice. I shocked my wife doing that on an early date.) I would also snack on a bowl of iceberg lettuce doused in red wine vinegar. I craved spicy, hot food as well and have always eaten the hottest things I could find. Once, as a ‘joke’, some other kids at a camp brought me back pizza with red pepper flakes piled under the toppings. They were disappointed when I didn’t even notice.

I didn’t think there was anything unusual about my clothing. Sure, I like clothes with no tags and have cut them out plenty of times, but doesn’t everyone? Tags are annoying. But after my initial assessment, I took stock of my wardrobe and realized pretty much everything I owned was 100% cotton, loose, and comfortable to the touch. I had to write my diagnostician back and tell her I had apparently unconsciously compensated for my sensitivity to harsher fabrics by never buying or wearing them. At the same time, I’m also pretty insensitive to changes in the surrounding temperature. I prefer cold to hot, but I’ve been known to wear shorts when others are freezing.

I mostly worked out ways to manage my sensory issues and they aren’t as severe as the ones some people have. But they are definitely an ever present part of my life.


DSM V Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Posted: June 22nd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Autism | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on DSM V Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Below are the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder from the DSM V. I wanted to have my own post to which I could refer in future posts. As I work through what each of the criteria means, I’m discovering more examples from my life. Basically, in order to be diagnosed, you have to meet all three criteria in section A and at least two of the criteria in section B. In addition, the symptoms must be present from early childhood and must limit or impair everyday functioning.

As someone who was diagnosed at 51, I had developed a host of masking strategies. It wasn’t as challenging as you might imagine to think back to childhood. Many of the examples for the criteria were things that were fixed in my memory because I had no explanation for them or through the intensity of my interest. My masking strategies for section B have also been more effective than my strategies for section A, so section B took more work to uncover.

One of the challenges as I’ve been working through the criteria to try to understand them and apply them to my life is that much of what you find online are examples from young children. And while some of those help me recall things from early childhood, they offer little explanation for how the criteria might look in an adult. The most helpful resources I have found for that have been posts and videos by other adult autistics.

If you’re reading this and you’re autistic, you already know what the criteria are. If you’re not, you may not be interested in that level of detail. I will be working through some of the specifics as they apply to me in future posts, though, so this post will provide a reference point for those discussions.

DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for ASD, 2013

Autism Spectrum Disorder
Must meet criteria A, B, C, and D:

A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive):

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures, to total lack of facial expressions or nonverbal communication.
  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to an absence of interest in peers.

Specify current severity:

Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior (see Table 2).

B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive):

  1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g. simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
  2. Insistence on sameness, excessive adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).
  3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g. strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
  4. Hyper-or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g. apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

Specify current severity:

Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior (see Table 2).

C. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).

D. Symptoms together limit and impair everyday functioning.

E. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.

Note: Individuals with a well-established DSM-IV diagnosis of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified should be given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Individuals who have marked deficits in social communication, but whose symptoms do not otherwise meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder, should be evaluated for social (pragmatic) communication disorder.

Specify if:
With or without accompanying intellectual impairment
With or without accompanying language impairment
Associated with a known medical or genetic condition or environmental factor (Coding note: Use additional code to identify the associated medical or genetic condition.)
Associated with another neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder (Coding note: Use additional code[s] to identify the associated neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder[s].)
With catatonia (refer to the criteria for catatonia associated with another mental disorder, pp. 119-120, for definition) (Coding note: Use additional code 293.89 [F06.1] catatonia associated with autism spectrum disorder to indicate the presence of the comorbid catatonia.)

Table 2: Severity levels for autism spectrum disorder

Severity level Social communication Restricted, repetitive behaviors
Level 3“Requiring very substantial support”
Severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills cause severe impairments in functioning, very limited initiation of social interactions, and minimal response to social overtures from others. For example, a person with few words of intelligible speech who rarely initiates interaction and, when he or she does, makes unusual approaches to meet needs only and responds to only very direct social approaches Inflexibility of behavior, extreme difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors markedly interfere with functioning in all spheres. Great distress/difficulty changing focus or action.
Level 2“Requiring substantial support” Marked deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills; social impairments apparent even with supports in place; limited initiation of social interactions; and reduced or  abnormal responses to social overtures from others. For example, a person who speaks simple sentences, whose interaction is limited  to narrow special interests, and how has markedly odd nonverbal communication. Inflexibility of behavior, difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors appear frequently enough to be obvious to the casual observer and interfere with functioning in  a variety of contexts. Distress and/or difficulty changing focus or action.
Level 1“Requiring support” Without supports in place, deficits in social communication cause noticeable impairments. Difficulty initiating social interactions, and clear examples of atypical or unsuccessful response to social overtures of others. May appear to have decreased interest in social interactions. For example, a person who is able to speak in full sentences and engages in communication but whose to- and-fro conversation with others fails, and whose attempts to make friends are odd and typically unsuccessful. Inflexibility of behavior causes significant interference with functioning in one or more contexts. Difficulty switching between activities. Problems of organization and planning hamper independence.