AutismDefining Autism: Distinguishing Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 Autism

Carl Smoot, PhD / Shane A. Whiting, Ph.D., LMFT / Brandon Moffitt, LPC

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is defined as having persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.

This can be manifested in a variety ways from deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, deficits in nonverbal communication, and deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships. 

Other common strengths associated with ASD are remarkable memory skills, attention to detail, early reading skills development, creative thinking, and excellent spelling skills. Rather than thinkinking of autism as a learning disability in the traditional sense, it may be more helpful to consider it in terms of a neurodevelopmental disability.

In the May 2013 publication of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual, the separate diagnostic labels of Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and PDD-NOS were replaced by one umbrella diagnosis of “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” While ASD may be the general term for a group of complex neurologically based disorders, the severity of autism an individual has is separated by varying degrees:

  • Level 1: Requiring Support
  • Level 2: Requiring Substantial Support
  • Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support

The distinguishing factors of these levels depend on the severity of the individual’s social communication impairment and the repeated and restricted behavior patterns of the individual.

Level 1 Autism: Requires Support

Individuals with level 1 autism, without proper support, will display noticeable impairments in social communication. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways from difficulties initiating social interactions and an atypical response to others in social situations.

Other common behaviors in individuals with level 1 autism include inflexible thinking, poor organizational and planning skills, and struggles to switch between activities.

This individual will likely speak in full sentences but has difficulties engaging in back-and-forth conversations. Furthermore, these individuals may appear to have a decreased interest in social interactions.

Level 2: Requiring Substantial Support

Individuals with level 2 autism have clear deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills in addition to apparent social impairments even with supports in place. Individuals with level 2 autism seldomly initiate social interactions and respond to others in an atypical way.

An individual with level 2 autism often limits his or her interactions to a specific interest, focuses on it excessively, and displays repetitive behaviors that are obvious to the casual observer.

Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support

Individuals with level 3 autism have severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills, that result in very limited initiation of social interactions and a minimal response to social overtones from others.

An individual with level 3 autism will likely only have a few words of intelligible speech, display extreme difficulty coping with change, and feel deeply distressed when asked to change their focus or redirect their attention.

Finding Support and Treatment for Autism

It is crucial for all individuals with autism to receive the out-of-home support they need based on their individual traits, behavior patterns, and diagnosis. For different levels of autism, this will mean different things.

Wilderness Therapy and Residential Programs as Specialized Treatment for Level 1 Autism

For teens with level 1 autism, a credible wilderness adventure therapy program, such as Vantage Point by Aspiro, or a smaller residential school such as Daniel’s Academy, can be a highly effective treatment option in helping these individuals improve their social skills, establish healthier patterns, and learn how to make smooth transitions.

Wilderness adventure therapy programs and specialized residential programs are able to teach teens with ASD these skills through:

  • Project-based learning systems as a way to collaboratively solve problems that have real-world applications
  • Participation in community involvement activities as a way to establish a connection with the people and the world around them
  • Exposure to new environments as a way to learn to incorporate change effectively

    The dynamic treatment approach helps teens with ASD break through boundaries, build awareness, and establish healthier cognitive and behavioral patterns. Specialized treatment program for autism such as Daniels Academy or Vantage Point, will focus on the following 7 goals for individuals with ASD:

  1. Enhance Emotional Tolerance and Behavioral Regulation Skills
  2. Develop Coping Skills
  3. Develop Social Skills
  4. Increase Flexibility and Reduce Rigidity
  5. Internalize and Generalize Skills Obtained
  6. Obtain Functional Assessment
  7. Develop Executive Function Skills

Adventure therapy programs and residential programs accomplish these goals through cognitive behavioral, collaboration and communication, consistency, active training, verbal praise, and encouragement.


In today’s world, autism is redefining itself both in treatment and by definition. While no two cases are ever the same, in any circumstance, it is important for teens with ASD to be immersed in an appropriate educational and social environment so they have numerous opportunities to make progress. Although this progress may be slow initially, with time and effective strategies these students can establish positive and meaningful relationships and achieve greater success at school.

Stay Tuned for part two of this series, “Defining Level 1 Autism: Distinguishing Why Different Levels of Care are Needed for Different Traits” where we take a closer look into specialized treatment options for level 1 autism and what makes these programs effective.

This series is brought to you by Aspiro Group. To learn more about the authors of this article, click here.

By The Aspiro Team | January 6, 2016