Levels of Autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is defined as having persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts. The current DSM-5 diagnostic manual has separated the disorder into three varying degrees:
- Level 1: Requiring Support
- Level 2: Requiring Substantial Support
- Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support
In this article, we will focus specifically on level 1 autism, distinguishing traits of level 1 autism, and how specialized treatment such as a nature-based residential program can help.
Defining the Traits and Behaviors of Level 1 Autism
Individuals with level 1 autism, without proper support, will display noticeable impairments in social communication. Common behaviors in individuals with level 1 autism include:
- Inflexibility in behavior and thought
- Difficulty switching between activities
- Problems with executive functioning which hinder independence
- Atypical response to others in social situations
- Difficulty initiating social interactions and maintaining reciprocity in social interaction
Theory of Mind in Specialized Treatment Programs for Level 1 Autism
One of the most effective ways to treat level 1 autism is through utilizing the Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind and adaptive skills-based treatment that targets executive function, emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, social communication skills, and anxiety reduction. These are all critical aspects in the field of Level 1 treatment, particularly in specialized treatment programs such as ThreePeaks Ascent residential treatment program.
Theory of Mind is the ability to accurately predict or attune to the thoughts, intentions, feelings, and perspectives of another person. Individuals with autism have delays in this particular development. As a toddler, a neurotypical child will transition into a phase of cooperative play in which the Theory of Mind begins to develop. Ideally, the child begins to be aware of the needs and feelings of those around them. When a theory of mind does not develop, early adolescence is marked with delays in social maturation, social/emotional problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility all of which play a crucial part in adaptive function.
Enrolling a teen in a specialized program that both understands and executes the Theory of Mind can help these individuals with ASD become more aware of other perspectives in addition to learning social skills and adaptability.
Nature Therapy and Specialized Residential Programs as Treatment for Level 1 Autism
Additionally, for teens with level 1 autism, a credible nature-based residential therapy program, such as ThreePeaks Ascent can be a highly effective treatment option in helping these individuals improve their social skills, establish healthier patterns, and learn how to make smooth transitions.
Short-Term Program as Treatment for Level 1 Autism
Nature-based, short-term therapy programs such as ThreePeaks Ascent should be considered as an intervention, foundation, and starting point for level 1 autism treatment. When students first begin treatment in a specialized program like ThreePeaks Ascent, they participate in a variety of adventure activities, service, and community involvement. This helps lay the foundation for them to establish a connection with the people and the world around them. This is especially effective in a short-term specialized treatment program because of the novel and new environment.
Long-Term Care for Level 1 Autism
With ThreePeaks and other short-term programs serving as a starting point, long-term programs such as Discovery Ranch, Discovery Ranch South, & WayPoint Academy provide students with ongoing reinforcement, application, and long-term efforts to solidify new skills. A long-term residential program can teach teens with ASD these skills on a long-term basis through project-based learning systems as a way to collaboratively solve problems that have real-world applications.
Ultimately, both long-term and short-term programs help teens with ASD break through boundaries, build awareness, and establish healthier cognitive and behavioral patterns. Students with ASD who enroll in a specialized treatment program learn how to reduce their stress through coping skills and learn how to increase their flexibility and improve their social skills. The students can make lasting changes and internalize these skills through cognitive behavioral therapy, collaboration and communication, consistency, active training, verbal praise, and encouragement.
Each individual with autism is unique. The level of disability and combination of symptoms can vary dramatically on the autism spectrum which makes it essential for every child and teen with ASD to get a proper diagnosis and the treatment they need. For teens with level 1 autism, a credible nature-based therapy program or residential program can help refine and teach these individuals how to work through their executive function deficits through individualized care and a research-based model to facilitate lifelong growth and lasting change.
About ThreePeaks Ascent Nature-based Therapy Program
The ThreePeaks Ascent program is uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe nature-based therapy programs. The professionals at ThreePeaks Ascent understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.
Our program focuses on helping adolescents and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage in life in a healthy and positive way.
Benefits of a Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment Program
Being immersed in nature can have a profound impact on a teenager. It improves their mental, emotional, and physical health. Combined with a proven clinical approach, a therapeutic experience helps teens heal. Here are specific benefits your family can expect to see while your teen is in nature-based short-term residential treatment.
The first stage of effective short-term residential treatment focuses on assessment and stabilization.
By observing your teen in a novel environment, our experienced therapists gain a deep understanding of what is really happening with your child. Research indicates accurate mental health assessments can lead to a 20% reduction in the number of days in treatment.
Mental health stabilization provides a safe environment to deescalate your teen’s level of distress and/or reduce their acute symptoms of mental illness. Until teens feel genuinely safe, they cannot begin to heal. One therapeutic modality emphasizes that “Cues of safety are the treatment” and “safety is defined by feeling safe and not simply by the removal of threat.” It is not enough to merely tell a teen in crisis that they are mentally and emotionally safe, they must actually feel and believe it.
Once your teen feels safe, our wilderness-based residential treatment program provides a novel and challenging environment that disrupts their unhealthy patterns and behaviors. Behaviors that either:
- cause your teen's mental & emotional health struggles
- or that your teen has developed as a negative way of coping with their struggles.
The second stage of an effective residential treatment program focuses on engaging teens in the therapeutic process and empowering them with the skills needed to thrive.
1. Engaging Teens in Therapy (even if they’ve been resistant to it before)
The ThreePeaks Ascent treatment program is designed to re-engage teens in healthy adolescent development. When your teen attends a short-term residential program, they are taken away from negative distractions they may have at home. They engage in treatment in a way that would not be possible in any other setting.
Your teen will participate in individual, group, and family therapy sessions while in treatment. This allows them to process their behavior as well as make changes in their personal life and family relationships. They are also able to learn from their peers, realize they are not alone in their struggles, and gain motivation to make changes.
We've found that by the time of discharge, 90% of teens were actively engaged in treatment. When contacted six months after treatment, most of these teens maintained the motivational progress they made during treatment.
2. Empowering Teens Through Skill Development
As your teen engages in the therapeutic process, they’ll start to see huge progress. But for long-term healing, it is not enough to only alleviate your teen’s struggles, we must also empower them with the skills needed to thrive in life. These skills include:
- Self-awareness skills like a growth mindset, identifying one's feelings, developing interests & sense of purpose
- Self-management skills like emotional regulation, self-motivation, resilience, setting & achieving goals, planning & time management
- Responsible decision-making skills like showing curiosity & open-mindedness, anticipating & evaluating the consequences of one’s actions, internal locus of control
- Relationship skills like communicating effectively, seeking & offering support, resolving conflicts constructively
- Social awareness skills like showing empathy & compassion for others, taking others’ perspective, recognizing strengths in others
Your teen is powerful, intelligent, and capable. They are among the leaders of tomorrow. That is why the third stage of our short-term residential treatment program focuses on helping teens redirect their previously misused potential toward developing mastery in life.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed years ago, “Happiness is the feeling that power is increasing—that resistance is being overcome.” When teens develop competence and mastery they:
- gain self-reliance and self-confidence
- become more resilient
- have a greater sense of meaning and purpose
- and better resist negative emotions.
Overall, building mastery helps teens develop a positive mindset. Because they feel competent and in control, they go from feeling, “I’m not capable” to “I can do this!”
Additional References & Mental Health Resources
To learn more about level 1 autism, we recommend the following resources:
About the Author
Steven DeMille, Ph.D. LCMHC
Steven DeMille is the Executive Director of ThreePeaks Ascent. He is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. His educational experience includes an MA in Mental Health Counseling and a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. His research focus is on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment, nature, adolescent development, and counseling ethics. He is actively involved in the counseling and psychology profession and holds regional and national leadership positions. He publishes and presents on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment and the use of the outdoors. This is done around the world at the national and international conference levels.