Oh, what a loaded word. I’m going to do my best to disseminate this information to you in a basic way, so you can get the idea for the 3 different categories of autism, as well as what it really means.
I’ll go over all the levels, but will be focusing primarily on level I, because that’s where I see the most confusion these days.
Autism is a brain-based difference (meaning the difference is in the way our brain processes information, it’s not a marker on the DNA or a birth-based difference). Autism affects the way a brain takes in and processes information, and is categorized as having difficulty in the area of social skills, communication and restricted and repetitive behaviors. The more difficulty in each area, the higher your level of autism.
In the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, version 5 (DSM-5) autism has 3 categories, Level III being the most severe…nonverbal, needs full time assistance, appears as very shut in and as though nothing is registering (but it is, believe me), extremely specific interests.
Level II is your more ‘classic’ autistic person…somewhat verbal, can do some activities without a helper, has noticeable or odd behaviors, difficulty switching tasks (transition), and obvious specific interests.
Level I: Formerly labeled as Aspberger’s, often called “High Functioning,” although high functioning is not actually a medical term or a diagnosis. It’s what people are talking about when referring to an autistic person that can read, write, talk, etc. They don’t need any support, or very little, can transition without noticeable challenges, and have special interests that can be very hidden (think of a work professional that gets absorbed into their job…this can be a special interest of an autistic person).
These categories are affected by all people that have autism (Level I, II and III):
Verbal and nonverbal communication
Restricted and repetitive behaviors
But…it can be VERY subtle, and VERY tricky to identify what these are in Level I, particularly if you are female…but that’s another story altogether.
Why is it so difficult, you may ask? Largely because we learn to mask, which means adopt characteristics or traits that we believe are wanted or helpful and use those in the correct situation.
Also…I would like to back up for a second, because I think this is really valuable and important information that's not widely available.
A person diagnosed as Level III or Level II autism can move up…they may be nonverbal and ‘in their own world’ as a toddler, but then comes in heavy intervention with speech, occupational and even physical therapy, and over time they are verbal, they have less restrictive interests, and they are more independent. So, their category may have gone from a Level III to a Level II. Same for a Level II…through support, time and learning they can advance to a Level I.
So what about a Level I, can they just graduate out of autism altogether?
Remember, it’s a brain based difference, a difference in the way our brain processes information…that will never change, but we can learn different ways of interacting…better social skills, improved verbal expression, that kind of thing. But we can’t learn our way out of autism…
A person with level I autism can seem to have very few autistic characteristics, though an autistic brain will always operate as an autistic brain…we perceive things differently, we look at problems from a different angle, interpret the world in a unique way…though, over time, I believe it might become more and more difficult as an outsider to see how a person with Level I autism actually fits that category…but it’s still there, believe me. It’s like learning a new culture…you might be from the USA and live in France, and sure…after some time it might seem like you’re French, or at least not from the US, but you are…that’s where you were born, it’s your background, you’ve just learned a different culture.
Ok…so Level I autism.
Probably we hear it called “high functioning” more often than not. It’s a way of separating ourselves from the more severe cases, but is that really fair? Should we really have a qualifier? Isn’t that just othering ourselves from our own people?
Ah…yes…it is a form of othering. And I’m guilty of it too.
Why does this happen?
Because when we say autistic or autism, we jump to the more significant kinds, and as a society, we get to unlearn that and introduce the spectrum of abilities a person with autism can have.
That’s what I’m here to do, y’all, I’m here to educate you on the flavors of our kind. Our marvelous multitude of minds...
Stay tuned, this conversation is going to get deeper…much, much deeper.