Autism Severity Levels (DSM-5) in 2021

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When your child gets an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis there is an avalanche of information. What do the autism severity levels mean? Many families have asked me this question. Some families have a lot of support. However, some are sent on their way with a one page diagnosis letter. If you’re looking to have your child assessed here’s a list of the ways you can get a diagnosis in Ontario.

What is the DSM-5?

The DSM-5 is the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) released the DSM-5 in 2013. It is where a doctor or psychologist finds the description and criteria of all of the disorders and behavioural conditions. As medical knowledge changes the APA releases updated versions of the DSM.

With the release of the DSM-5, one of the major changes to the autism section was the combining of the communication and social impairment criteria. Another change was adding the severity levels.

What are the autism severity levels?

One of the most confusing elements of a diagnosis is the severity levels. Instead of using high and low functioning, which are ambiguous, we use the severity levels. Severity levels create a common language. This is important so there’s a standard and we all know that we’re talking about the same thing.

There are 3 levels: Level 1 is equivalent to requiring support. Level 2 implies requiring substantial support. Level 3 denotes requiring very substantial support. A person can have different severity levels for each of the elements of autism. For example, a person can be Level 1 in social communication but level 2 in restrictive, repetitive behaviours.

Father walking with daughter along the street. Autism severity levels aren't clear.

How are they used?

The severity levels do not determine funding eligibility. But this might change as the province implements needs based funding. Above all, individual assessments should inform treatment decisions. Certainly, a therapist might use a severity level to pick which assessments to do. Severity levels give a glimpse of what the focus of ABA Therapy might be. That is to say that clinicians might use severity levels in guiding treatment planning.

Can autism severity levels change?

Absolutely!

As children grow and learn their needs will change. In other words, the amount of support the person needs will change depending on the environment and expectations. People are complex. That is to say there are many factors that impact their behaviour and the support they need. Often, removing one barrier can improve other areas as well. For instance, improving a child’s communication skills can (and usually does) reduce challenging behaviour.

If you have questions about your child’s diagnosis or autism severity levels and how an ABA Therapy program can help, contact Side by Side Therapy to set up a no charge consultation.

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