Defining Level 1 Autism: Distinguishing Why Different Levels of Care are Needed for Different Traits

Understanding the levels of autism, especially Level 1 Autism by Defining the Traits and Behaviors of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

By: Carl Smoot, PhD, Shane A. Whiting, Ph.D., LMFT, Brandon Moffitt, LPC

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is defined as having persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.

Levels of Autism

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 wilderness adventure therapy or a 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 Vantage Point, Black Mountain Academy, and Daniels Academy.

Theory of Mind is the ability to accurately predict or attune to the thoughts, intentions, feelings, and perspective 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 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 Theory of Mind can help these individuals with ASD become more aware of other perspectives in addition to learning social skills and adaptability.

“Our 16-year-old daughter was depressed, anxious, suicidal, and had recently been diagnosed with ASD. We were in desperate need of a miracle. The team at Aspiro made our lives whole again. My daughter THRIVED at Aspiro and made gains we never thought possible. My only regret is that we did not send her sooner. Aspiro gave my family hope again.”
Christina M.
Aspiro Parent, Florida

Wilderness Adventure Therapy and Specialized Residential Programs as Treatment for Level 1 Autism

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Additionally, for teens with level 1 autism, a credible wilderness adventure therapy program, such as Vantage Point by Aspiro, or a smaller residential programs such as Daniel’s Academy or Black Mountain Academy, 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.

Vantage Point: Short-Term Program as Treatment for Level 1 Autism

Short-term wilderness adventure therapy programs such as Vantage Point 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 Vantage Point, 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.

Daniels Academy and Black Mountain Academy: Long-Term Care for Level 1 Autism

With Vantage Point and other short-term programs serving as a starting off point, long-term programs such as Daniel’s Academy and Black Mountain Academy provide students with ongoing reinforcement, application, and long-term efforts to solidify new skills. A long-term residential program is able to 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 are able to make lasting change and internalize these skills through cognitive behavioral, 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 wilderness adventure therapy program or residential program can help refine and teach these individuals how to work through their executive function deficits through individualized care and research-based model to facilitate lifelong growth and lasting change.

This article is brought to you by Aspiro Group. To learn more about the authors of this article, click here.

About Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy

The Aspiro Adventure programs are uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at all of the Aspiro group programs understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

All of our programs focus on helping adolescents, young adults, 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 life in a healthy and positive way. Aspiro group programs include Aspiro Adventure, Daniel’s Academy, Vantage Point, Pure Life,  Black mountain Academy, and Outback.

To learn more about level 1 autism, we recommend the following resources:

About the Author

By Carl Smoot, Ph.D, Director of Clinical Assessment at Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program
  • Carl Smoot, PhD
    Carl Smoot, PhD
    Director of Clinical Assessment

7 thoughts on “Defining Level 1 Autism: Distinguishing Why Different Levels of Care are Needed for Different Traits”

  1. I appreciate this article. It allows the world to see that a child’s small horizon can be graciously expanded upon. The notion of wilderness adventures , including horse back riding sounds welcoming.

  2. I always knew there was something going on with my grand daughter. I found out today that she’s on the level one spectrum for autism she’s 9 years old and very intelligent but has interaction issues with her peers. I’m still learning alot about this disability, thank you for the info

  3. I appreciate this article. What about adults who were perhaps never diagnosed? Or treated? There have been many problems with individuals that range from simple social interactions to misdiagnosis to trouble with law inforcement.

  4. Hi, I am a 16 year old teenage girl who was recently diagnosed as level 1 ASD and level 1 ADHD. I have many issues when it comes to my education in the mainstream classes and I’m not sure if I could cope trying to make it to year 12. I had spent my last year in a special Ed school which helped my mental state as well as a little of my educational skills. But since they didn’t do VET courses or anything I wasn’t allowed to continue into year 11 and 12 in this school so I’m now back in mainstream and failing a lot. I have my mother to help but I’m still really struggling, in our CAFS class we had to do an independent research project based on literature. I decided to base the topic on ASD teens on the spectrum in mainstream classes, with that I was able to make questionnaires for my school, teenagers on the spectrum and their parents. The research has proved that it is a real struggle… and reading this article really educated me to know that being autistic doesn’t mean you’re a freak of nature and it isn’t a real thing… This research really shows that there are people in this world like me and that there is help and support out there. Sorry if this is long and it goes off topic, I didn’t really read it all to check.

  5. April,
    I really appreciate you sharing this and trying to help others. My 17-year-old daughter Emma was just diagnosed with ASD level one and she also has ADD. Both her father and I are overwhelmed and not sure where to start. Can you share some things that have helped you and have you been to one of these camps? Thanks again for sharing your journey.

    Julie Williams


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Carl Smoot, PhD
Director of Clinical Assessment

Also specializes in: Psychological Evaluation / Supervision / Autism Spectrum / Disorders / Developmental Disorders / Psychodynamic Psychotherapy / Group Therapy

Carl has been working with outdoor and residential therapeutic programs for over 30 years. After completing his degree, Carl supervised three school-based mental health programs in Hawaii. Carl moved back to Salt Lake City because of his love of the outdoors and for the opportunities in Utah to work in wilderness programs, complete psychological evaluations, and to conduct consultations.

Carl has been with Aspiro since 2012 and is currently Aspiro’s Director of Clinical Assessment. In this role, Carl supervises the Aspiro clinical team, reviews complex clinical cases, and consults with Aspiro clinicians and families when unique clinical challenges arise. Given his extensive experience in mental health, Carl often assists with training Aspiro field staff in a variety of clinically relevant topics.

Under Carl’s leadership, the Aspiro clinical team aims to create positive client outcomes by implementing evidence-based clinical practices. Critically, Carl ensures that the Aspiro clinical model is motivating and is built on the principles of positive psychology.

Away from work, Carl enjoys fly fishing, duck hunting, and being outdoors with his wife of over 20 years, his 3 children and his grandchildren.