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.

Conclusion

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

Spotlight on Jamie Kaczmarek and Vantage Point

Jamie Kaczmarek, a therapist at Aspiro Adventure's Vantage Point Program for teens and young adults on the spectrum

Jamie Kaczmarek has been instrumental in the development of Aspiro’s Vantage Point program and has been working in the wilderness therapy profession for the past 14 years. She specializes in working with adolescent males and females ages 13-17 years old. According to Jamie, establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships is the foundation of the Vantage Point program.

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No Child Left Behind – Autism Spectrum Therapies

Supporting Your Child Through Their Treatment for Anxiety or Depression | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

By Jamie Ahern, LCSW

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Vantage Point program at Aspiro, and I’m amazed by where we’re at right now and what amazing clinicians we’ve got on board that works with autism spectrum therapies. As a former Vantage Point field guide-turned therapist, I have seen the workings of this program from the angle of “brush your teeth, pack your bags, walk the miles, and change your socks” to individual therapy sessions and phone calls with loving, albeit anxious parents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Vantage Point program, let me fill you in. First, however, let me give you the typical pitch I’d give another professional. Here goes:

“Vantage Point is a wilderness adventure therapy program designed specifically for adolescents and young adults who struggle with a variety of neurodevelopmental and cognitive issues such as autism spectrum disorders, severe Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, executive functioning deficits, learning differences (ex: Non-Verbal Learning Differences), social relationship management problems, impulse control and even traumatic brain injuries.”

Whew!

Now, let me tell you what I know to be true about the Vantage Point Program and its students.

Vantage Point is for those adolescents and young adults who have been left behind, marginalized, misunderstood, lost, teased, and bullied. It’s for those who’ve struggled tremendously in school, with their family and with building relationships with others. They often want so badly to be understood, to have friends, to be less anxious, and to not be confused and overwhelmed in social situations.

When I think of a Vantage Point student, I think of a 15-year old boy named Cameron I worked with when I was a field guide. During an initial therapy session with Jamie Kaczmarek and myself, Cameron broke down, cried and stated, “I just want to be normal. I just want to have friends.”

At Vantage Point, this young man experienced, for the first time in his life, being accepted into a peer group and forming real friendships. He was no longer picked on, bullied or just “tolerated.” He was understood. His guides were patient with him. He did not get “left behind” when he struggled to keep up with others. In fact, he became loved and respected by his peers for having a positive, cheery outlook and a fascination for reptiles – of which Utah has no shortage. He was made fun of for these things in the past. Before coming to Vantage Point, he was isolating himself in his basement. After becoming accepted into a supporting, nurturing environment, Cameron was challenged to work on developing healthy coping behaviors, He began to talk about his thoughts and emotions. His therapist, Jamie Kaczmarek, worked with Cameron on developing specific social relationship management skills. Cameron, who had significant executive functioning deficits, became more independent and learned to cook his own meals, pack his backpack, keep track of his gear, plan ahead, transition more quickly, and make good decisions. Although Cameron will probably never be what society considers “normal”, he began to feel more normal and accepted during his stay with Vantage Point. When he left, Cameron was more confident in social situations, he was able to more independently care for himself and he had further developed his ability to face challenging situations and overcome. He felt more “normal.”

That is what I know Vantage Point to be.

It is, hands-down, the best place for these kids to make some serious changes in their emotional, behavioral, and social well-being. In an effort to become the best treatment program that we can be, we have made some excellent additions to our clinical team in the last year.

Let me tell you about all my amazing co-workers on the Vantage Point clinical team.

Caitlin Galt, LCMHC, is a “quirky young adult” whisperer. I have had the pleasure of sitting in many therapy sessions with Caitlin. She is patient and takes her time with slow processors and those with attention difficulties. I’ve witnessed a two-hour therapy session for a student who needed it – she knows how to build rapport with these kids. Caitlin works with the young adult Vantage Point group, a clinically complex, challenging group of students to be working with. The parents of these students are often struggling as well, and Caitlin is a master at working with complex family dynamics to treat the whole family.

Carl Smoot, Ph.D., is a recent addition to our Vantage Point clinical team. Carl specializes in neuropsychological, academic, vocational, aptitude, and personality assessment, including projective assessment tools. He is a great fit for the Vantage Point program as our students are oftentimes very clinically complex. His assessment skills are 15 years in the making and Carl is well known for providing clarity and understanding with these types of often misunderstood and misdiagnosed adolescents and young adults. Carl also has extensive experience in program assessment and will be working with the Vantage Point program to improve program outcomes for our students and their families.

Jamie Kaczmarek, LCSW, has been with the Vantage Point program for several years now. Jamie connects with Vantage Point students – she “gets” them like no other. I recall being in a therapy session with Jamie when I though all was lost and a Vantage Point student was becoming dysregulated and shutting down. She used humor, distraction and physical activity to strategically re-engage this student and was able to make significant progress with him during this session. In the past, other therapists had given up in frustration; but not Jamie. These are her skills – she connects, she understands, and she is very dynamic. On the phone with Vantage Point parents, she is able to provide parents with clear assessment and understanding of their son or daughter. I’ve heard multiple parents say with relief, “Someone finally understands my kid!”

Lastly, Gordon Day, Ph.D., is the clinical director for Aspiro and the Vantage Point program. He has been with us since 2008, and has been instrumental in developing the Vantage Point program to its current status. Like Caitlin, I think Gordon is another “quirky student” whisperer. I have yet to witness someone build rapport with a Vantage Point student faster than Gordon. A student on the spectrum often struggles with significant anxiety, and Gordon has an amazing knack at setting even the most high-strung, difficult student at ease. In line with some standard Vantage Point vernacular, he is the Jedi Master when it comes to working with these complex young men and women.

As a Vantage Point therapist, I have a very strong belief that our clinical team is the best out there. We love our jobs, our company, and the amazing students we work with. As a former Vantage Point field guide, however, I know it’s not just about the therapists! As a field guide, I was involved in extensive training in working with Vantage Point students. After all, it is a very unique population; I’d even say the most interesting and fun-loving population! Our Vantage Point field guides are particularly patient and maintain a focus on keeping Vantage Point students engaged in treatment. After all, these students have become skilled at avoiding engagement in school, with family or with other people in general. I can recall many, many times “on trail” when a Vantage Point student would shut down because they were overwhelmed, anxious and/or emotionally dysregulated. It required copious amounts of patience, empathy and creativity to assist these students in processing their thoughts and emotions to overcome their shutdowns and continue through the day. Our field guides are so caring and skilled. I am very proud that I get to work with these amazing people.

One of my favorite theoretical frameworks is Positive Psychology.

Within this framework is a belief in actively expressing gratitude, and how this active pursuit of being grateful can improve our “happiness.” In that spirit, I will close by saying that I am grateful for my past year at Aspiro and the Vantage Point Program. I am grateful for a company and it’s professionals that care about the happiness of our students. Further, I am grateful for the happiness that working with these wonderful, quirky, and fun-loving young men and women provides me!

Carl Smoot, PhD
Director of Clinical Assessment

Carl began working in mental health in 1990 and soon thereafter entered a Ph.D. program in Psychology at the University of Utah. After completing his degree, he supervised three school-based mental health programs around the island of O’ahu. Carl moved back to Salt Lake City because of his love of the outdoors and opportunities to work in wilderness programs completing psychological evaluations. He has an in-depth knowledge of learning and developmental disorders, as well the ways they interact with mental health and other adjustment problems. At Aspiro since 2012, Carl runs a weekly supervision meeting, mentors field guides, consults on difficult cases, and completes psychological evaluations.

Away from work, Carl enjoys fly fishing and duck hunting. He has been married for twenty years to Dr. Tracine Smoot. Together they have three children and one grandchild.