A Closer Look At Low-Functioning Autism

Updated December 12, 2018

Reviewer Tanya Harell

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Low-functioning autism is a term which clinically describes autistic individuals who suffer from cognitive impairments. People who have low-functioning autism may display odd behavioral patterns, abnormal interactions with others, and other emotional/social issues. Moreover, aggression, sleep problems, and self-harm may also become frequent habits of low-functioning autistic persons.

An Overview Of Low-Functioning Autism

Autism Parenting Magazine explains that low-functioning autism is quite extreme. More often than not, this manifestation of autism will present itself during a child's earliest years, particularly infancy. Some of the strongest indicators of low-functioning autism are speech issues and trouble bonding with relatives and other kids their age. Fundamental day to day activities may also serve as challenges for individuals who have low-functioning autism; some examples of the activities above are eating, dressing, and showering. Therefore, afflicted persons or children will likely require assistance.

Unfortunately, the negative offshoots of low-functioning autism are not always limited to mental impairments. There can be undesirable physical issues which may lead to ailments such as epilepsy, tuberous sclerosis, and Fragile X syndrome.

What Causes Autism?

At this time, specialists have not determined one definite cause of autism. However, various studies have shown that there are a variety of factors which are connected to autism. According to Everyday Health, for every 68 children, one of them will have some form of autism, whether low-functioning or otherwise. Millions of individuals around the world also have autism. However, an awareness of associated risk factors can be helpful in combating autism before its inception.

Autism has a genetic component. This doesn't necessarily mean that one will automatically inherit autism if one or both of their parents had autism. Nevertheless, there are over 100 genes which share links to autism. Despite certain misconceptions, the genes above do not automatically determine whether or not one develops autism or experiences high or low-functioning autism. Although, specialists have determined that someone's likelihood of developing autism may increase if they have certain genes and are also exposed to other non-hereditary risk factors which share links to autism.

Similarly to hereditary causes, environmental factors are also linked to the contraction of autism. The quality of a mother's pregnancy, or lack thereof, can play a huge role in the development of her child; moreover, if autism is contracted, the quality of the pregnancy can also impact whether the child has high-functioning autism or low-functioning autism. Exposure to certain chemicals during the pregnancy is another example of a potential risk factor. Despite the aforementioned environmental factors, it's important to note that a difficult pregnancy, exposure to chemicals, and the like are not guaranteed to engender autism. These are merely potential risk factors which may increase the likelihood of a child to develop autism.

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Additional potential factors in the contraction of autism include older parents, malnourished pregnant mothers, complicated pregnancies/births, and multiple pregnancies which occur in under 12 months. Exposure to heavy metals, mercury, and air pollution are other factors which share links to the development of autism. Additional research has moreover determined that women who take antidepressant medications during their pregnancies may be increasing the likelihood of their child contracting autism.

Low-Functioning Autism Vs. High-Functioning Autism

Despite the many studies which have gone into autism, there are still many people who view the disorder in a very general manner. Despite this, there are a variety of nuances associated with autism. Moreover, there are many differences between low-functioning autism and high-functioning autism. While the former is generally associated with greater struggles and problems, the latter is viewed as a less "complicated" form of autism.

One of the most notable contrasts between low-functioning autism and high-functioning autism involves behavior and interactions with others, affirms Very Well Health. For instance, people with low-functioning autism may require academic classes which are specifically designed for special needs individuals. However, their high-functioning counterparts are likelier to thrive in academic environments and classes with their non-autistic peers. Low-functioning individuals also tend to differ in appearance, speech habits, and manners of communication. Unlike low-functioning people, those with high-functioning autism are more likely to fit in, communicate verbally, and abide by social conventions.

Despite the preceding contrasts, low-functioning autistic people are not a monolith, and neither are individuals with high-functioning autism. Each person has their strengths and weaknesses. There are many instances where low-functioning autistic people display superior performance in an area where high-functioning individuals struggle and vise versa! It's very important to understand that not every autistic person, whether high-functioning or low-functioning, falls into a neat little box or category. Each is different and unique.

Controversy Surrounding Autism

Despite the differences between low-functioning and high-functioning autistic individuals, there is still a degree of controversy associated with autism and societal perceptions of the disorder. A Parents op-ed makes the case that referring to autistic persons as "low-functioning," and "high-functioning" actually does more harm than good. The author of the op-ed happens to be a mother with a child who suffers from severe or "low-functioning" autism; however, throughout the piece, the mother makes the case that her child is not "low-functioning," but capable of learning and eager to socially connect with others.

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The Parents op-ed also details the dangers of the terms "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" as they pertain to autism. In many cases, autistic children who are deemed as "high-functioning" may not have access to certain therapy or services because they are deemed as not autistic enough. Likewise, autistic children who are regarded as "low-functioning" may also be considered as a burden or lost causes. The mother of the opinion above piece shared her experience of dealing with autism advocacy groups who "demonized" the reality of having a "low-functioning" autistic child. Moreover, there are concerns about whether or not terms like "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" will further stigmatize autism and autistic children.

Treatments for Autism

Despite various misconceptions, treatment options are not (and should not) be merely reserved for individuals with low-functioning autism. Regardless of how mild or severe autism may be, treatment is still an option which should be seriously considered and looked into. WebMD explains that there are a variety of treatment options which exist to help autistic children overcome their challenges and lead successful, happy lives.

First and foremost comes Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). As the name suggests, ABA is a treatment program which focuses on the behaviors of children. There are a variety of subparts of ABA; discrete trial training (DTT), pivotal response training (PRT), early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI), and verbal, behavioral intervention (VBI). DTT employs the use of positive reinforcement and basic lessons which PRT focuses on various ways of incentivizing children to communicate with others and learn information. EIBI is a type of behavioral training which is most effective for children who are below the age of five years old while VBI centers on the development of language skills.

After ABA comes Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based Approach (DIR). The purpose of DIR is to promote intellectual and emotional growth for autistic children. This is done by having parents play with their kids on the floor, thus teaching the latter skills related to emotions and communication with others.

Other treatment options such as The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-handicapped Children (TEACCH) are geared towards bettering skills in autistic children via the use of physical objects. PECS employs various symbols to encourage communication and asking questions. TEACCH, on the other hand, uses picture cards to aid autistic young people in the development of basic skills, such as showering, getting dressed, putting on shoes, etc.

While behavioral training may prove beneficial for children with high-functioning or low-functioning autism, others may reap stronger benefits from various types of therapy. In many cases, therapy comes in handy for helping autistic people learn how to function in the real world independently. Occupational therapy is designed to help individuals adopt essential life skills such as connecting with others, eating, bathing, and getting dressed. Sensory integration therapy is another form of treatment which provides aid to autistic children who struggle with exposure to being touched, hearing various sounds, or seeing bright lights.

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A Final Word

Regardless of whether one has low-functioning autism or high-functioning autism, an awareness and understanding of the disorder are imperative. Many autistic individuals have found ways to cope, function independently, and lead successful lives. A diagnosis of autism does not automatically sentence someone to an unfulfilled or unhappy life. Despite someone's range on the spectrum of autism, they should be afforded the opportunity to receive the behavioral therapy and treatment which is best for them.

Are you or someone you care for impacted by autism? If so, it's important to know that you are not alone. There is a litany of resources and professionals which can be of service and provide treatment/guidance to people who either have autism or know someone who has autism.

BetterHelp just so happens to be one of those resources. You can contact us at any time by clicking here.


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