What is mild autism?

Current autism diagnosis in Europe still refers to ICD-10 /DSM-IV where autism is divided into several categories like infantile autism (Kanner autism), Asperger’s syndrome, high-functional autism and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) which addresses to autism as social communication disorder without significant stereotypical behavior, restricted interests or rigid routines.

In the US, the DSM-V is already introduced merging all subtypes of autism into autism spectrum disorders, and determining severity or degree of support with additional numbers.

Most of the subtypes mentioned above are grown historically. Asperger’s syndrome has been called after the Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger while Kanner autism has been called after Leo Kanner. High-Functional Autism (HFA) is said to be classic autism from early childhood but with higher intellectual abilities (Tony Attwood doubts the differentation in HFA and Asperger’s syndrome is necessary). PDD-NOS covers the atypical autism when core autism symptomes are present but the development is atypical (which is often the case with 47,XXY-people).

In any case, there are a few key features of autism present in all subtypes:

  • enhanced sensitivity to sensory stimuli (sensory processing disorder, high emotional sensitivity, impaired gross and fine motorics) as „intense world syndrome“
  • different way of thinking, oftentimes pattern or visual thinking
  • difficulties to pick up social cues, prosody, facial expressions, reading between the lines

In some journals, self-support guides and parental reports, Asperger’s syndrome and PDD-NOS are considered as mild autism, attempting to euphemize the consequences of this diagnosis.

The perspective of mild autism may arise from the absence of

  • intellectual disability (i.e., IQ < 70)
  • rigid routines and rituals, stereotypes and repetitive behavior (making everydaylife and employment difficult to organize)
  • inability to speak
  • necessity to have full-time health care or special education/schools.

However, if you ask people with Asperger’s or PDD-NOS themselves, they will probably answer very different how severe they are affected. A study of Asperger’s and HFA asking them about their life quality has shown that the entire lifetime was characterized by ill-defined social development. Social difficulties are highly dominating throughout childhood and youth and will slightly decrease during adulthood. Growing up, the motivation to encounter social contacts increases but friendships are still relatively seldom reaching adulthood. The lack of partnership is specific for HFA/Asperger’s. With respect to therapy and support, comprehension, acceptance and emotional support are considered as most helpful for these persons.

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Even if someone with Asperger’s syndrome seems to function well in everydaylife, they might suffer from difficulties having and maintaining friendships, from continuous misunderstandings and erraneous picture of their personality. Someone who tends to talk in monologue might be perceived as arrogant and selfish while the opposite is actually the case. What you don’t realize, either, is the degree of sensory processing disorder. They may feel painful when background noise is given and are unable to have a conversation in a loud environment, which is a serious problem going to a busy party, into a loud restaurant or to a concert but also at work when many distractions are present.

You may not notice they have great difficulties with executive functions like planning, organisation, dealing with sudden changes, new things or simple housework stuff. They might have difficulties to accept a phone call or to call a stranger as it is often the case with public authorities. They would enjoy many opportunities but are unable to predict the unexpected to realize it.

As a summary, mild is a relative term because it is a judgement from outside.

  • Some severely autistic people want to be freed from their cage – they’re suffering from high amounts of incoming sensory stimuli.
  • Other severely affected autists may deal better with their situation and perhaps don’t consider themselves as severely affected.

The same holds true for so-called high-functional or Asperger’s or PDD-NOS autists:

  • Some of them might deal so well they are not even officially diagnosed. They have a job, partnership, kids and are satisfied with their life quality.
  • Some are diagnosed soon or later during their lifetime but are still able to manage well their situation.
  • And quite a lot of them are considered to have mild autism but suffer from lacking comprehension and acceptance.

If they tell about their suspicion or even official diagnosis, nonautistic people tend to imagine stereotypic pictures of classic autism and are unable to transfer this prejudice to their close friend or colleague or son/daughter. They may look at their „confession“ as an excuse instead of a reason for their odd behavior. They still believe it would be sufficient to „change the attitude“, „pull one’s socks up“ and „buck up“. To be seen as someone who pushs too hard is very disappointing and hurting for people with „mild“ autism. Life is difficult enough. Comprehension would relieve the lonely pain.

So if you talk or write about mild autism, especially about someone you know or want to describe, just ask them before if they agree with you.

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