Learning the Levels of Autism

Autism has become more and more visible in our world in the past few decades. From better understanding the diagnosis to seeing autistic characters in movies and TV shows, our perspective on autism has continued to widen. And while we may see more information about autism, it is important to understand that autism does not just mean one thing. Just like most experiences in mental health, it is not a one size fits all diagnosis. For example, one person who is experiencing depression may find that they are prone to angry outbursts, while another person with depression feels sad or hopeless. Similarly, teens on the autism spectrum experience different levels of severity. 

Autism spectrum disorder is somewhat complex. There is no single universal profile that applies to everyone with autism. The disorder looks different on an individual basis. While there are stereotypes and common assumptions, it is important that you educate yourself on the full realm of the disorder. There are different levels of autism. Each level requires a unique type of attention and understanding. Before you can truly help someone with autism, you should educate yourself on their specific challenges.

The 1, 2, 3

Teens who meet the criteria for having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will be further diagnosed as having ASD level 1, ASD level 2, or ASD level 3, according to criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). These levels are based on a person’s strengths and limitations in regards to their ability to communicate, adapt to new situations, expand beyond restricted interests, and manage daily life. They specifically indicate how much support an autistic person needs, with level 1 meaning relatively little support is required and level 3 indicating the need for a great deal of support.

A correct autism diagnosis will include the levels of severity that can help doctors and other specialists work with the individual to provide the right treatment and support. The following levels are how professionals work to establish an appropriate care plan for individuals with autism:

  • Support Required. Level one is the least severe level of autism. Individuals who are diagnosed with level one need support as they may struggle with social difficulties. A person with ASD level 1 usually is able to speak in full sentences and communicate, but has trouble engaging in back-and-forth conversation with others. They may try to make friends, but not be very successful. Other challenges for individuals in this category include:
    • Trouble initiating conversation
    • Losing interest quickly
    • Transitioning to a new topic
    • Inflexible behaviors
    • Difficulty making friends
    • Trouble organizing or planning
    • Difficulty getting acclimated to a new environment


  • Substantial Support. Level two is more severe than level one. Individuals have more severe social deficits that make holding a conversation very challenging. Even with support, coherently communicating can be extremely difficult. Individuals are more likely to respond inappropriately and speak in very short sentences or phrases. Individuals with level 2 tend to have very narrow interests and engage in repetitive behaviors that can make it difficult for them to function in certain situations. Individuals with level two autism also struggle with the following:
    • Issues with nonverbal communication such as facing away from person they are talking to
    • Inflexible behaviors that interfere with their ability to function on a day-to-day basis
    • Unable to cope well with changes in environment or other changes. This can cause them serious distress


  • Very substantial support is required. Level three is the most severe level of autism diagnosis. Those with a level three diagnosis have significant impairments in their verbal and nonverbal communication. Problems expressing themselves both verbally and nonverbally can make it very hard to function, interact socially, and deal with a change in focus or location. Engaging in repetitive behaviors is another symptom of level 3 ASD. This level is marked by the following challenges and behaviors:
    • Avoiding interactions with others
    • Acting in a limited way when they have to interact with others
    • Highly inflexible and competitive
    • Reacts strongly to changes
    • Becomes highly distressed in situations where they are required to focus or alter their tasks

The ASD levels of support can be useful for indicating where a person with autism falls on the spectrum in regards to severity, but these labels can also have their own limitations. They can be subjective and lacking in nuance, and the DSM-5 offers little specificity regarding the types of support indicated or the situations in which support is needed. For example, some autistic teens need support at school but are fine at home, while others may do well at school but struggle in social situations.

In addition to the nuances of an autistic teen’s experience, the level that they have been assigned when they were first diagnosed can shift as they get older and develop more social and life skills. So while being assigned one of the three levels of autism can be helpful for understanding how high or low functioning the individual is likely to be, it will not account for the individual’s unique personality or behaviors. This means that an assignment can help determine what kinds of services and supports may serve them, but that support needs to be highly individualized to be effective. 

Residential Treatment for Autism Support

New Focus Academy helps boys struggling to form and maintain meaningful relationships. Our students face problems related to low-processing, autism spectrum disorder, and other neurodevelopmental issues. We teach students methods to improve their functional living skills including self-care, homework, chores, and leisure planning.

A residential treatment program can be a good fit for students on all levels of the autism spectrum. Some may benefit from the academic support provided, while others benefit from the opportunity to build their social skills with a group of peers. We help to empower these students by teaching and practicing social, coping, organizational, and self-care skills in a small, safe environment. As they succeed in the program, they become more confident and self-assured as they deal with day-to-day life. 

No child wants to feel like a failure. Programs based on compliance for the sake of following rules often don’t create a permanent shift in mindset. Our students learn the principles behind rules so they aren’t just blindly following a program’s expectations. Too often a child’s diagnoses and limitations are the defining factors of identity. We base our treatment on the groundbreaking concepts of Positive Psychology. We highlight each student’s strengths and use them to create a plan based on building confidence and motivation for personal growth. This individualized approach helps us better serve students on all levels of the spectrum. We can use the diagnosis as a building block to create the best support system for the unique student.

A crucial part of our structure at New Focus is our team members, who we call “coaches”. These coaches support our students throughout the treatment process. Our coaching-based method helps our uniquely abled students get the extra boost and motivation to progress through the program. By having dedicated coaches, your teen gets immediate feedback, positive reinforcement, and the motivation to reach personal goals and objectives. During your teen’s stay, these coaches develop a therapeutic relationship based on trust, support, and understanding. They work alongside your teen to celebrate successes and offer teaching moments when times are difficult. Our coaches get to know each student’s strengths and areas of growth in order to best help them work towards their individual goals. 

Students experience development through various opportunities designed to challenge. Life skills education, exposure to new experiences, and practicing concepts in real-life settings allows for greater independence in our students. These opportunities are offered to students at their level. For example, we would not expect a level three student to walk into a group of new people and interact without support. Rather, we would work with them by starting small with maybe a coach and a peer to practice their social skills and help them become more comfortable. By scaling these experiences we can better set them up for success. We meet our students where they are while providing opportunities for learning and growth. 

New Focus Academy can help

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The skills they learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and improve their self-management skills. 

Our approach focuses on helping students gain independence in daily activities and their social lives. Subsequently, students develop confidence and self-esteem as they find success in accomplishing activities independently. As they do this, they start to feel empowered, thus stopping this feeling of being a “mistake” in its tracks. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits. We can help your family today!

For more information please call us at (844) 313-6749

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