Types Of Autism: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders 2023

Jennifer Olejarz

Updated on - Written by
Medically reviewed by Kathy Shattler, MS, RDN

types of autism
Different types of autism follow a spectrum of symptoms.

It might seem like autism spectrum disorder, or ASD is on the rise. Currently, the WHO estimates that 1 in 100 children have autism globally.[1] 

Interestingly, 1 in 36 children have ASD in the U.S.[2] Of course, that could be due to its reducing social stigma and better testing methods. 

And while debates and research for the causes continue, doctors have at least established different subtypes that can diagnose the disorder more easily from a young age. With this, treatment can begin earlier, such as educational, social, and behavioral therapies, along with healthy habits like exercises for autism.[3]

So, with a multitude of symptoms along a large spectrum, many wonder, “What types of autism are there?” Read on to learn the levels and subtypes, along with ways to diagnose and cope.

What Are The Key Types Of Autism?

According to the revised DSM-5, there are now five key types of autism:

  1. With or without intellectual impairment.
  2. With or without language impairment.
  3. With a medical, genetic, or environmental factor.
  4. With a neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder.
  5. With catatonia.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

ASD is the diagnostic term for autism, which is a developmental disability[4] caused by differences in the way the brain works. It mostly affects how a person communicates and interacts with others. It may also include repetitive patterns of behavior,[5] like playing with toys the same way every time or getting easily upset with small changes. 

Are There Different Types Of Autism?

Autism falls under a spectrum since the symptoms and severity are different for everyone. You can have a normal life with mild symptoms or possibly need a caretaker for more debilitating ones, like difficulty speaking. 

In reality, autism describes an entire group of different neurodevelopmental conditions that fall under five subtypes and three functional levels, which we’re about to dive into. 

Main Types Of Autism Spectrum Disorders

There are five subtypes, or specifiers, of ASD as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition or DSM-5.[6]

With Or Without Intellectual Impairment

This subtype includes individuals who may or may not have limited conceptual, practical, or social skills. This could mean difficulty appreciating others’ emotions, interpreting abstract ideas literally, a lack of fear or more fear than necessary, and delayed learning skills.

With Or Without Language Impairment

Speech, language, or communication issues may be prevalent. Symptoms could include impaired articulation, delayed language skills, or a complete inability to communicate verbally.

With A Medical, Genetic, Or Environmental Factor

Up to 20% of individuals with ASD have a genetic disorder.[7] Other factors include prenatal issues, birth difficulties, metabolic imbalances, a family history of ASD, and exposure to heavy metals.

With A Neurodevelopmental, Mental, Or Behavioral Disorder

Other mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, intellectual disorder,[8] ADHD, and disruptive behavior disorder,[9] have a high comorbidity with ASD. For example, up to 50%[10] of people with ASD have depression, whereas the general population has about 7%. 

With Catatonia

Catatonia is a complex syndrome that commonly occurs in mood disorders. Its symptoms can overlap with ASD with catatonic features[11] such as mutism, immobility, and repetitive or purposeless movements—approximately 20.2% of individuals with ASD experience a degree of catatonia.

These subtypes of ASD represent every level of severity and intelligence to those suffering from a neurodevelopmental issue, making it easier to diagnose all types of autism. 

Outdated Types Of Autism Spectrum Disorders 

Before the DSM-5 created the five different types of autism or subtypes in 2013, it was common to separate autism into different diagnoses[12] rather than on a spectrum. So usually, when people ask, “What are the different types of autism?” they’re used to seeing these results: 

  • Rett syndrome — a rare neurological disorder noticeable from infancy that includes loss of movement and coordination and speech or communication difficulties. 
  • Classic autistic disorder — the generic term to cover the spectrum of communication and behavioral issues. 
  • Asperger’s syndrome — is considered a mild and high-functioning form of autism.
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder or Heller’s syndrome — delayed onset of developmental problems that can become evident from ages three to ten.
  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified — considered atypical autism or a developmental disorder that didn’t meet the criteria for other syndromes.

The newer broader diagnosis of ASD includes these conditions, minus Rett syndrome which is a neurological disorder. 

How To Diagnose Autism

ASD can be difficult to diagnose since there’s no specific medical test.[13] Instead, healthcare professionals will look at behavior and developmental patterns to make a diagnosis. There are three steps[14] needed to reach a formal diagnosis, which include:

Developmental Monitoring

This is an ongoing process where caregivers observe the child’s behavioral growth, like how their skills and abilities are developing. If any milestones[15] in normal development areas, such as playing, learning, speaking, and moving, are missing, a medical consultation is needed. 

Developmental Screening

At this stage, closer attention is paid to developmental processes. Children should be getting developmental and behavioral screening check-ups[16] at 9, 18, 24, and 30 months of age. Parents or adults who suspect they may have ASD, fill out questionnaires. 

Formal Evaluation

By now, the screening tools should identify if there’s cause for concern. If so, a formal evaluation by a trained specialist is done. There might be a structured test to see if the criteria meet the diagnosis. 

In general, ASD can be detected from 18 months or younger,[14] with symptoms such as avoiding eye contact and missing developmental milestones like speaking. By age two, a diagnosis by medical professionals is considered reliable. 

Currently, awareness of ASD is just beginning to grow, so there are many people who don’t receive a diagnosis until adolescents or adulthood, if at all. 

Levels Of Severity In ASD

The DSM-5 also identifies three levels of severity[17] for those with ASD, which include:

Level One: Requiring Support

This level includes mild communication and behavioral issues, such as:

  • Inflexible behavior. 
  • Difficulty making friends. 
  • Inability to organize and plan. 
  • Issues initiating or maintaining conversations. 

Individuals at this level might need some support for social situations and have some difficulty adapting to changes in routine. 

Level Two: Requiring Substantial Support

This includes moderate difficulties with social interactions, along with restricted or repetitive behaviors. Similar symptoms as with level one might be noticeable but more severely impact daily functioning. 

Level Three: Requiring Very Substantial Support

At this level, a person with ASD needs a full-time caretaker. Symptoms might include:

  • Using few words and intelligible speech. 
  • Extreme difficulty with changes to routine. 
  • Responding only to very direct approaches. 
  • Great distress when changing focus or actions. 

A medical professional will often tell you what your level of autism is at the time of diagnosis. 

Managing The Different Types Of Autism

Even though there aren’t any cures for ASD, therapy, medication, and healthy lifestyle habits[18] can reduce symptoms that interfere with daily functioning. 


types of autism
Cognitive, behavioral, social, speech and occupational therapies improve ADHD symptoms.

There are quite a few types of therapy for autism that focus on improving behavior, understanding, thoughts, and feelings, such as:

  • Play therapy. 
  • Speech therapy.
  • Behavioral therapy. 
  • Educational treatments. 
  • Social-relational treatments. 
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy. 
  • Occupational therapy, which includes sensory integration or physical therapy. 

With regular treatment, these therapeutic treatments for autism can all help individuals learn new coping mechanisms. 


types of autism
Medication can help with co-occurring issues like mood disorders.

While there aren’t any medications to treat the core symptoms of ASD, some can treat co-occurring issues that might help to improve the overall quality of life. This includes anxiety, depression, or sleep disorder medications. There are also some pharmaceuticals that help manage hyperactivity, focus, and self-harming behaviors. 

Healthy Habits

types of autism
Improving nutrition, movement, and sleep routines often improve symptoms.

Some of the biggest issues facing most types of autism in adults and children are selective eating and sleep difficulties. Naturally, this can take a toll on someone’s overall nutrition and health status, leading to other issues. 

Obesity,[19] for example, is common among children with ASD. Adults with ASD are also more likely to have an unhealthy diet, sleep, and exercise pattern,[20] which may lead to chronic conditions that can worsen their ASD symptoms. 

With professional support, though, there are some habits individuals with ASD can develop that help manage symptoms, such as:

  • Incorporating daily exercise to release pent-up energy.  
  • Developing a sleep routine to go to bed at the same time.
  • Adding more nutrient-dense foods, such as blending fruits and vegetables into smoothies.

Of course, building these habits might take some time, depending on the severity and level of the symptoms, but different therapies can teach these behaviors. 


ASD describes a wide range of neurodevelopmental disabilities that often affect social and communication skills, as well as behavioral issues. Some common symptoms include difficulties socializing, changing routines, speaking, or organizing.  

With such a wide range of symptoms and severity, people wonder, “How many types of autism are there?” The revised DSM-5 states five different types that may include language or intellectual impairments, mental, behavioral, or neurodevelopmental disorders, or other medical conditions. 

There are also three levels of severity that require different amounts of support and caregiving, ranging from mild (where you can have a normal life) to debilitating where you need a high level of care. 

Fortunately, different treatments can improve the quality of life. These include online counseling for kids or adults with different behavioral and educational treatments. Medication for other conditions or issues, like anxiety or depression, might also help. Finally, healthy habits can go a long way to improve physical, and, therefore, mental health. 

+ 20 sources

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  3. Anyabuine, J. (2022). Exercise For Autism: 8 Effective Workouts For Autistic Children 2023. [online] Healthcanal.com. Available at: https://www.healthcanal.com/brain-nerves/autism/exercises-for-kids-autism
  4. NHS Choices (2023). What is autism? [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/autism/what-is-autism/
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Jennifer Olejarz

Medically reviewed by:

Kathy Shattler

Jennifer Olejarz is a Certified Nutritionist and Health Counselor specializing in binge and emotional eating, stress management, and mental health. She has almost a decade's worth of experience in the health and wellness field writing health articles, guides, and books, along with creating health and nutrition courses. She works one-to-one with private clients to build healthier lifestyle habits and end the lifelong battle of food guilt and diet frustrations. She has degrees in both Psychology and Nutrition from Western University, Canada.

Medically reviewed by:

Kathy Shattler

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