Autism symptoms greatly vary among children. Some kids have drastic ones that influence many aspects of their lives. This is known as low-functioning autism.
In this article, we go over everything that you need to know about this condition, including how your child’s symptoms could change with age, medical comorbidities that are correlated with severe autism, and more.
What is low-functioning autism?
Low-functioning autism is a condition in which patients have acute and strong autistic symptoms. This typically has a serious and negative impact on their academic, social, and behavioral performances.
Low-functioning autism is also referred to as “level 3” or “severe” autism.
What is the difference between high-functioning and low-functioning autism?
There are three levels of autism diagnosis criteria:
Level 1 (High-Functioning Autism)
Under this category of autism severity, patients may struggle when they approach others in social settings or start conversations.
High-functioning autism has some effects on the child’s functionality and their ability to quickly change tasks. However, most of these negative aspects can be minimized through therapy and support.
Level 2 autism patients will find it harder to communicate and socialize than those with a level 1 diagnosis. Additionally, level 2 autism negatively impacts a child’s ability to function in multiple ways and cope with general changes (ranging from small tasks to moving to another room or environment).
The right support systems can help patients manage (but not eliminate) these hurdles.
Level 3 (Low-Functioning or Severe Autism)
This is the most severe autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis, and its effects extend to almost all areas of the patient’s life.
Those that have low-functioning autism avoid social interactions and only give minimal responses when people approach them. Moreover, they will find it extremely difficult to adapt to changes and switch their attention from one activity or task to another.
Needless to say, children with level 3 autism need a lot of assistance with day-to-day functions and managing their symptoms.
Luckily, there are many traits that tell parents whether or not their children have severe autism.
Signs of Low-Functioning Autism
If you suspect or are worried that your child may have low-functioning autism, you want to keep an eye on some of the signs.
Namely, you should observe their social interactions, communication skills, behavioral habits, and sensory processing.
To illustrate, here are the main signs of level 3 autism:
● Impaired Social Interactions: Kids that have severe autism tend to struggle in social settings, up to a point where it is seriously hard for them to function. They also rarely (if ever) start a conversation with someone.
● Communication Difficulties: To identify potential symptoms of level 3 autism, you should pay attention to how your son or daughter communicates. Severely autistic children grapple with forming intelligent or cohesive sentences when they talk to strangers. Similarly, they only respond when someone directly speaks to them, and their replies are short and limited.
● Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Anxiety, and Behavior: If your child has low-functioning autism, you will notice that their engagement in repetitive or restricted behaviors can detrimentally impact nearly every aspect of their lives.
● Sensory Processing Difficulties: Low-functioning autism patients will find it very challenging to adapt to a changing environment or setting. In the same vein, switching their attention from one task or activity to another can be seriously stressful for the autistic child.
Does autism worsen with age?
In short, autism can get worse as your son or daughter age. Having said that, it is also common for autistic kids’ symptoms to wane off or become less severe as they get older.
As far as a child’s age is concerned, there are two types of ASD diagnoses:
● Early Onset Autism: Most of the time, children show symptoms by the time that they’re born. This is known as early onset autism.
● Regressive Autism: With regressive autism, the child is neurotypical during the early stages of their life. However, they will start showing ASD traits between their first and third birthdays.
Certain early developmental signs and patterns can tell you whether your son or daughter has regressive autism, including the following:
● They struggle to pronounce words that they were previously comfortable with.
● The child will stop engaging with other kids. Instead, they begin to watch TV or play with toys on their own.
● They lose their non-linguistic skills, such as gesturing and maintaining eye contact.
Children will usually lose their non-linguistic skills before they start to develop the other signs of regressive autism. Although this mostly happens before their third birthday, it may take them until they’re 6 years of age to show ASD symptoms.
When should you have your child screened for autism?
Screening your kid for levels of autism entails two stages:
● Developmental Checkups: Your child’s doctor will administer these routine screenings when they turn 18 to 24 months old. After that, the doctor may talk to you about any behavioral or developmental issues that they identify.
● Additional Evaluations: If the doctor finds that your kid has potential ASD symptoms, these further evaluations become necessary. A group of medical experts, ranging from children’s psychiatrists to speech therapists, will conduct these additional evaluations.
As mentioned earlier, your son or daughter may only show the traits of ASD by their 6th birthday. Therefore, you should continue to have them undergo checkups and evaluations when you spot potential signs, even if they already passed their initial developmental screening when they were 18 to 24 months old.
A recent study points out that autism severity can change substantially during early childhood. More specifically, it found that among nearly 17% of autistic kids, new or worse symptoms emerged between their 3rd and 6th birthdays.
However, 55% remained stable. About 30% who were diagnosed with autism in or prior to their third year had little-to-no ASD signs by the time they were 6 years old.
Perhaps most noteworthy is that the study highlighted that it is incredibly difficult to predict whether the child’s autism symptoms will get better, worse, or stay the same as they age. In other words, your kid’s health, habits, diet, and behaviors will not increase or decrease the severity of their ASD.
Conversely, autistic children could develop health issues that are caused by their ASD.
What are the most common comorbid conditions for a low-functioning autistic child?
Medical comorbidities in ASD patients are very widespread. Children with low-functioning autism usually have more acute health conditions than their level 1 and level 2 counterparts.
The most common types are gastrointestinal comorbidities. Yet, if your son or daughter has level 3 ASD, they may also develop respiratory, immune system, and neurological problems.
Here is a list of some of the prevalent medical comorbidities that low-functioning autistic kids have:
● Bacterial dysbiosis (this negatively impacts metabolism)
● Digestive enzyme deficiencies (a condition in which the child’s lack of digestive enzymes makes it difficult for them to digest food)
● Food allergies
● Gluten intolerance or sensitivity that’s not related to or caused by celiac disease
● Neuroinflammation in the brain
● Neuronal injury that hinders the brain’s ability to communicate with other body parts and muscles
● Respiratory problems
● Stomach and/or esophagus reflexes
The comorbidities above can affect high and low-functioning ASD patients. Yet, kids with a level 3 are especially prone to these health problems, just as they are more likely to develop difficulties that impact their social interactions, communication, behaviors, and sensory processing.
All of this points to the importance of regular checkups for your autistic son or daughter.
Keep in mind that your child may not show any ASD traits until they turn six years old. Once they’re diagnosed, you want to get them the right physical and psychological treatments as early as possible.
This allows them to effectively manage (if not recover from) potential comorbidities. In the same vein, it enables them to minimize how much their ASD symptoms influence their social performance, communication skills, behavior, and sensory processing, all of which are particular areas that kids with low-functioning autism struggle with.