Understanding Level 1 Autism

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Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects one’s social communication skills, ability to perceive the world, and behavioral responses. 

Although we prefer to view autism as just another neurotype, there are varying interpretations of autism within the medical model. In an attempt to describe the broad “spectrum” of autism, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) categorized the condition into 3 levels of severity. 

In this article, we focus on understanding Level 1 autism and how it presents compared to the other levels.

Key Takeaways

The DSM-5 introduced three ASD levels of severity: level 1 autism (requiring support), level 2 autism (requiring substantial support), and level 3 autism (requiring very substantial support). 

Level 1 autism is characterized by difficulties in social interactions, communication, sensory processing, and behavior, though they may not be as pronounced as those observed at levels 2 or 3.

Level 1 autism will manifest differently depending on co-occurring conditions such as intellectual disability and language impairments.

Levels of ASD in a Nutshell

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To meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD according to DSM-5, a child must exhibit persistent deficits in social communication and interaction. These include challenges with social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communicative behaviors, and navigating relationships.

Additionally, they must demonstrate at least two out of the four behavior types: repetitive motor movements or vocalizations, adherence to routine, highly focused interests, and hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input. 

The levels assigned describe the severity of the presentation and the support required.

  • Level 1 autism – requires support
  • Level 2 autism – requires substantial support (learn more about Level 2 autism)
  • Level 3 autism – requires very substantial support

Individuals diagnosed with level 1 autism experience discomfort, difficulties, or fluctuations in skills affecting their daily life. Children with level 1 autism experience a disability; however, it may not be as limiting as that experienced by those who would have been assigned a level 2 or 3 diagnosis.

Level 1 Autism Characteristics

Communication and Social-Emotional Skills

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Autistic individuals often exhibit unique forms of communication and social-emotional interactions. Their behaviors, emotional expressions, and interests may deviate from social norms. They may also respond differently to commonly recognized social cues. 

Differences in nonverbal communication are evident during social interactions. For instance, autistic individuals may struggle with maintaining or breaking eye contact. They may also experience difficulties initiating, sustaining, and terminating conversation, particularly on topics outside their areas of interest.

Due to the challenges in communication, autistic individuals may find it difficult to form and sustain relationships. Navigating the complex rules of social interactions and adjusting to changing social dynamics can be particularly challenging without having supports in place.

In this area, people with level 2 or 3 autism may have moderate to severe difficulties in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills even with supports in place.

Repetitive and Restrictive Behaviors

Autistic individuals often engage in distinct patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. This may include repeating movements, playing with objects in the same unconventional ways, or repeating phrases (echolalia).

Children with level 1 autism may also have very specific interests in topics, activities, and food. They have a strong preference for sameness, predictability, and routines, often experiencing extreme distress when faced with small changes or transitions.

In level 2 and 3 autism, individuals may experience heightened distress compared to level 1 when transitioning between activities or coping with unexpected changes.

Sensory Processing Difficulties

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Sensory sensitivities, aversions, or preferences are common among autistic individuals. They may exhibit heightened or decreased reactions to sensory stimuli such as sound, touch, or visual input. Their pain thresholds may also differ. They might also be very interested in certain sensory experiences, like lights or movement. Their sensory profiles contribute to individual perceptions and experiences in their environment.

The Caveat

The signs of level 1 autism may show up early in life, but they might not become apparent until social situations become more challenging. It is also common for individuals to learn ways to mask these signs as they grow older.

It is important to remember that Autism Spectrum Disorder is distinct from other developmental conditions, such as intellectual disability. Individuals with ASD may present with or without accompanying intellectual impairment, language impairment, or an associated medical or genetic condition.

More Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

ADHD Vs. Autism: What’s The Difference?

Are There Different Types Of Autism?

29 Inspiring Autism Awareness Quotes


Level 1 autism describes the severity of ASD within the context of diagnostic criteria. While the levels offer a general understanding of how an autistic person presents, it is nearly impossible to assign a level and expect uniform skills and difficulties for everyone within this profile. In an increasingly complex health and medical landscape, levels provide a simplified framework for ASD diagnosis, treatment, insurance, and access to other benefits.

Assigning levels can also enhance awareness about the diversity of autism presentations and the varying support needs across the spectrum. Although autism shares commonalities as a spectrum, a level 1 autistic individual will appear vastly different from a level 3.

Ultimately, level 1 autism is merely a descriptor, and no one should feel compelled to construct their identity solely within these labels.


  • Maria Theresa Bautista

    Theresa is a pediatric occupational therapist, writer, and subject matter expert specializing in autism, ADHD, and sensory processing difficulties. Her doctorate-level training has provided her with the opportunity to support neurodivergent children and their families through direct care and consultation. Currently, she works as a clinician in a special education setting and collaborates with various organizations to create educational content and other resources

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