Understanding Severe Autism: 4 Key Considerations for Clarity

Understanding Severe Autism: 4 Key Considerations for Clarity

When discussing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it is essential to recognize that each individual diagnosed with this condition possesses unique characteristics and, consequently, their support needs are specific. As the name suggests, autism encompasses a spectrum of traits and behaviors that predominantly involve difficulties in communication and interaction, sensory sensitivities, repetitive behaviors, delays in cognitive or learning skills, and motor skills deficits. Within this broad spectrum are three levels for classifying autism based on the severity of an individual’s features. Severe autism falls into the third level and entails more significant complexities and extensive, long-term care. Often, severe autism is poorly understood, and many individuals with this diagnosis face discrimination due to insufficient awareness to provide appropriate interactions for those with severe autism.

At ABA Centers of New Jersey, we understand that every person with ASD is unique and requires support in different areas. Our Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) professionals tailor ABA therapy plans to address the specific needs of each individual. Individuals with severe autism can significantly benefit from ABA therapies, as they focus on teaching skills and coping mechanisms through positive reinforcement and play-based activities. These approaches can enhance their quality of life and that of their families.

In this blog, we will define what severe autism is, its characteristics, the levels of autism, and how early intervention and ABA therapy can lead to outstanding results in improving the skills of individuals with autism, including those with severe autism.

What is Severe Autism?


You’ve likely encountered individuals with autism who may not even realize they are on the spectrum. As the name implies, autism encompasses a range of characteristics that vary in severity, making it challenging for many to identify. Some of these traits can be subtle, and while they may present difficulties, they do not necessarily hinder individuals from leading fulfilling lives. Many successful and incredibly talented people have disclosed their diagnosis of ASD, including Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and possibly the wealthiest person in the world.

However, the characteristics of individuals with severe autism are much more profound and conspicuous, significantly impacting their development and social integration. The impairments of children with a diagnosis of severe autism are different from those who are higher functioning. Doctors define profound or severe autism as having an IQ below 50 and being non-speaking or minimally verbal. A study by the Autism Science Foundation indicates that nearly 30% of children diagnosed with autism have severe autism. Additionally, being born prematurely or with low birth weight, belonging to ethnic minorities, coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and being female could increase the likelihood of severe autism diagnosis. Individuals at this level of autism typically exhibit significant deficiencies in communication, social interaction, speech, and behavior. Many require extensive support throughout their daily lives, from childhood to adulthood.

4 Severe Autism Characteristics


  1. Problematic and Repetitive Behaviors: Individuals with severe autism frequently exhibit heightened challenging behaviors, including aggression, tantrums, elopement, and self-injurious acts such as biting, hitting, or head-banging. These behaviors often stem from the frustration of not verbally expressing their needs and emotions. They also tend to engage in stimming behaviors, such as vocalizations or hand-flapping, to help them regulate themselves.
  2. Severe Limitation of Verbal Communication: Some autism advocates refer to individuals with severe autism who exhibit a complete absence of verbal communication as “non-speaking individuals.” This attribute is one of the defining features of individuals with severe autism, who grapple with complex challenges when expressing themselves and communicating through spoken language.
  3. Significant Intellectual and Cognitive Delays: The intellectual and cognitive impairments in individuals with severe autism impact their learning ability and behavior, hindering the acquisition of new skills, achieving independence, academic performance, and everyday basic tasks. Cognitive impairment can also increase the likelihood of experiencing epilepsy and seizures.
  4. Need for Extensive and Ongoing Support: Individuals with severe autism face a more significant challenge in attaining independence, requiring substantial and lifelong assistance. This support encompasses essential activities such as personal hygiene, toilet use, eating, and dressing. Those with severe autism typically rely on a constant therapist or caregiver to aid their development and ongoing behavioral and sensory interventions.

How Does Severe Autism Differentiate from Other Levels of Autism?


When the American Psychiatric Association established the DSM-5 as the official tool for classifying and diagnosing various mental conditions and disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it combined all the subtypes of autism previously used into a single diagnosis: Autism Spectrum Disorder. This move aimed to recognize and encompass the diverse traits shared by individuals across the spectrum, promoting a more accurate and consistent diagnosis.

Classifications of ASD have evolved significantly over the years because the range of potential complications is broad and diverse, and not all children fit neatly into the same categories. Currently, ASD is categorized into three levels, indicating the level of support required by the individual:

  • Level 1 ASD is the lowest level a person with an autism diagnosis can be. Individuals under this level need specific support to address social interaction, organizational skills, and planning issues. With appropriate help, they can achieve independence and attain significant academic achievements and career development.
  • Level 2 ASD: Individuals at this level require substantial support in verbal communication, often have very restricted interests, and exhibit repetitive behaviors that can hinder their daily development.
  • Level 3 ASD is the most severe end of the spectrum, where individuals with severe autism require more extensive support than their peers. Although they may exhibit the same signs associated with Levels 1 and 2, these symptoms are much more powerful. Additionally, they often experience other complications, such as severely limited abilities to communicate and interact socially with others.

How Early Intervention and ABA Therapy Can Benefit Individuals with Severe Autism


Early intervention with ABA therapy is one of the most effective approaches to facilitating remarkable long-term outcomes for individuals on the autism spectrum. During early childhood, a child’s brain exhibits heightened neuroplasticity, making it more receptive to learning new skills and behaviors. These early experiences shape their behavior in adolescence and adulthood. 

Furthermore, ABA therapy is regarded as the gold standard for autism treatment, boasting over four decades of research and successful outcomes. Expert behavior analysts tailor therapy to meet each client’s needs, employing dynamic and friendly teaching methods such as games and positive reinforcement to impart skills that foster independence. Therapists also address challenging behaviors by providing coping mechanisms, thereby reducing aggression, self-injury, and tantrums.

ABA Centers of New Jersey: Supporting Individuals with Severe Autism


At ABA Centers of New Jersey, we understand the vast spectrum that autism disorder encompasses, and we recognize that each client possesses unique needs and incredible strengths that we can enhance through ABA therapy.

Our autism care professionals and ABA therapists are equipped with the training and expertise to address the diverse requirements of neurodiverse individuals, regardless of their level of autism. We are here to assist you.

Call us at (855) 640-7888 or leave your contact information on our website to schedule a free consultation.

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