High Functioning Autism: Learning Disabled Or Learning Enabled?

By Sarah Fader

Updated January 02, 2019

Autism is a condition that continues to baffle doctors, teachers, and parents. There are varying levels of autism and associated behaviors, therefore the condition is not one size fits all. Persons with traits that belong to the diagnosis of autism are said to be "on the spectrum," and these traits cover a range of behaviors. This makes it difficult for doctors to properly diagnose, for teachers to adapt instruction(Ohan, Ellefson, & Corrigan, 2015), and for parents to know which battle to choose for their autistic child.

Early Signs: Seen and Unseen

Autism in generally not detected in children until around the age of three when children begin to develop social skills such as sharing and socializing with other children during play, rather than playing around them. It is also during this time that parents recognize their child does not initiate hugs, nor does he or she become visually animated over the ordinary things that other children do("Autism spectrum disorder," 2015). In short, it is around age three that parents admit there is something different about their child. The signs were there in varying degrees along the way, but by age three, when most children's social world expands, the signs are more obvious.

Source: commons.wikimedia.org

One of the reasons parents find it difficult to admit that their child might be autistic, is that the condition is generally associated with learning disabilities, or to put it more crudely, mental retardation. This is a wildly inaccurate assumption; autistic children often have what appear to be advanced motor skills, in that they can recognize shapes, patterns, and order much earlier than their same-age peers, thus a discrepancy regarding intelligence and perceived disability (Kalbfleisch & Loughan, 2012) begins that will likely follow the child through life.

But He is So Smart!

Parents of a child with advanced motor skills will often overlook the fact the child does not make eye contact, is unaffectionate, or is so regimented that he or she will not eat, sleep, or even go to the bathroom if there is a lack of order in the manner in which these daily tasks are carried out(Rosin, 2014). These are all typical signs of autism; most unrecognized until a child is old enough to express why he or she does not want to go to bed at seven instead of eight, or brush his or her teeth with the blue vs. the green toothbrush.

For many parents, upon hearing the diagnosis of autism assigned to their child, it is like a life sentence of hardship. Knowing a child is high maintenance and knowing why are too different things. Doctors who are well read on the subject can provide some assurances to parents of newly diagnosed autistic children, and will tell them that while their child does have a condition that will make life different, there are programs, groups, and specialized teachers who can assist in making life with the autistic child more understandable. These doctors will also be able to assure these parents that their autistic child may in fact be far brighter than his or her peers, and parents will have to work extra hard to nurture that intellect and help the child to keep it focused in the right direction.

Autism, a Disability: Not

The primary thing that parents need to understand is that autism is not mental retardation (Autism spectrum disorder," 2015). Retardation means that something has been stunted in its growth; the mind of the autistic child is not stunted, it is actually more expansive. Just as it might take a genius to teach a genius, it might take an autistic to teach an autistic.

Source: flickr.com

Autistic individuals are more sensitive to external stimuli than others, they seek order in what they hear, see, and physically experience. This means they are also able to recognize and correct disorganization, when provided the proper environment and guidance. Many of their "quirks" are very similar to the profoundly gifted child (Burger-Veltmeijer, Minnaert, & Van Houten-Van den Bosch, 2011), and often the profoundly gifted child is thought to have a learning disability ("Gifted but Learning Disabled: A Puzzling Paradox | LD Topics | LD OnLine," n.d.).

There is a correlation between autism and giftedness that has been overlooked due to the occurrence of behavioral problems associated with autistic children. Historically, autistic children have been labeled as learning disabled, and placed in the same classes as children with learning disabilities, therefore the giftedness may have been masked by mimicked behaviors(Reis, Baum, & Burke, 2014)

The 1988 movie Rain Man with Tom Crews and Dustin Hoffman changed how many view the autistic and opened the doors for further scientific and educational inquiry into the condition("Interacting With Autism," n.d.). For centuries, autistic individuals were placed in asylums along with the mentally ill, until more modern times when they were place in the same small group learning environments as learning disabled children.

High functioning autistics are the ones who are most easily recognized for giftedness, for they have developed better communication skills than their counterparts who are not considered high functioning (Kalbfleisch & Loughan, 2012). High functioning does not necessarily mean more intelligent, or less autistic; it means that the individual is able to cope and has learned to make sense of what does not generally seem logical or reasonable to the autistic.

Education, Funding, and Frustration

One of the problems associated with the lack of proper services in education is that funding comes from federal, state, and local sources, and receipt of services is predicated upon the ability to label a child so that he or she may qualify for the services, and in turn that the school system may qualify for the funding. Recent research over dual-exceptionalities has generated much in the way of demands for reform regarding exceptional children. Further there are concerns that too much is reliant upon fitting into a diagnosable model, meaning that funding is dependent upon political semantics(Ronksley-Pavia, 2015)which prevents educational systems' ability to properly meet the needs of exceptional children.

Source: kadena.af.mil

To make matters even more complicated, in 2012 the American Psychiatric Association decided that Asperger's Syndrome would no longer be included as a separate diagnosis from autism, but rather it would be considered on the spectrum in the DSM-5(Ohan et al., 2015).Person's with Asperger's syndrome are those individuals who have typically been considered high functioning Autistics because they do not have many of the intellectual deficits commonly believed found in those with autism.

This change of the diagnostic criteria was alarming for many parents and educators, as it meant that children who do not meet the full diagnostic criteria for autism could no longer be eligible for educational services. Due the outcries of parents and educators over this change, there has been a rash of renewed interest in Asperger's syndrome. With some studies exploring the difficulties in identifying and meeting the needs of those children who are also gifted. The difficulties arise as many of the characteristics of extremely gifted children are quite similar to those of children with Asperger's (Amend, Schuler, Beaver-Gavin, & Beights, 2009) or considered high functioning Autistics (Burger-Veltmeijer et al., 2011), or rather, high functioning autistics.

Politically Incorrect? Or Missing the White Lie Gene?

Persons who are considered high-functioning autistics are typically bright individuals; however, it might be said they lack the social graces (Doobay, Foley-nicpon, Ali, & Assouline, 2014).Autistic individuals lack the ability to perform according to a social norm that relies upon nuances and white lies. For example, if asked if a dress makes one look fat, the high-functioning autistic is likely to say, "No, you are just fat." High-functioning autistics are typically quite good with technology or any task that requires a great deal of concentration and where patterns are involved, because there are no gray areas.

Source: aspergers101.com

Environment Matters

It is generally their inability to cope with change in routine, people, or surroundings that causes them as well as care-givers and teachers anxiety. When parents recognize their child's differences at an early age and seek medical advice and support of other parents, they are able to work with their child to teach what these norms are, and how he or she can compensate for what most would consider intuition regarding behavior.

Any autistic child, no matter where he or she falls on the spectrum, who has been brought up in dysfunction, or by parents who lack appropriate coping skills themselves will exhibit problematic behaviors in school and social settings. This causes further impediment to proper identification and placement in schools. Further, any child who has been brought up in a calm environment, but is enrolled in school and immediately placed with learning disabled children is likely to become camouflaged within that environment.

Source: malstrom.af.mil

Parents who advocate for their children can attest to the opposition they meet from school systems in regard to autistic children. Most school systems lack the resources and specialized teachers to meet the educational needs of autistic children, add to this a child with gifted capabilities and circumstances become even more dire.

For parents to properly advocate for their children, they should also be aware. Parents of autistic children will benefit from joining a support group where there are other parents of autistic children- not because there is something "wrong" with their child, but because their child has unique needs and abilities.

Autistic children will grow up to be autistic adults. There is no treatment for autism, there is no cure. There are those who say there should not be a treatment; they have a very salient point. Autism is something that is not understood, that does not mean that it is a disability, or a disorder. It is just different.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Often parents of a child who is autistic feel alone. It is not uncommon for those in their social circle who also have children to distance themselves. The isolation can cause marital problems, and can make it even more difficult for the parents to express empathy toward the child. There are also those parents who find they derive a great deal of pleasure from their child and his or his unique behaviors, and most especially view of the world.

Parents of autistic children often seek help from the mental health community. While there is no cure for autism, parents can learn to help their child through modeling and modification of behaviors. A therapist with a foundational knowledge of autism and the varying degrees in and around the spectrum can assist a family with coping and help them to find their way to not only acceptance of their child's differences, but also help them to find joy in their child who is not learning disabled, but is perhaps learning enabled to the level that the parents need help in helping the child explore and build upon his or her unique abilities.

There are many avenues to explore when it comes to finding the right therapist to meet specific needs. Finding one with experience in the area in which help is needed is essential. Finding a therapist that keeps convenient office hours is also another factor. For busy families and individuals, seeking the aid of licensed therapist via an online platform is something for consideration- especially when scheduling sessions around the needs of an autistic child.

No matter the means in which therapy is received, the important thing is that help is there when it is needed.


Amend, E. R. ., info@amendpsych.co., Schuler, P., gpjs@berk.co., Beaver-Gavin, K., kbgavin@gmail.co., &Beights, R., becca@auburn.ed. (2009). A Unique Challenge: Sorting Out the Differences Between Giftedness and Asperger's Disorder. Gifted Child Today, 32(4), 57-63.

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Doobay, A. F., Foley-nicpon, M., Ali, S. R., &Assouline, S. G. (2014). Cognitive, Adaptive, and Psychosocial Differences Between High Ability Youth With and Without Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders; New York, 44(8), 2026-40.

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Interacting With Autism. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2017, from http://interactingwithautism.com/section/understanding/media/representations/details/38

Kalbfleisch, M. L., &Loughan, A. R. (2012). Impact of IQ Discrepancy on Executive Function in High-Functioning Autism: Insight into Twice Exceptionality. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders; New York, 42(3), 390-400.

Ohan, J. L., Ellefson, S. E., & Corrigan, P. W. (2015). Brief Report: The Impact of Changing from DSM-IV "Asperger"s' to DSM-5 "Autistic Spectrum Disorder" Diagnostic Labels on Stigma and Treatment Attitudes. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders; New York, 45(10), 3384-3389.

Reis, S. M., Baum, S. M., & Burke, E. (2014). An Operational Definition of Twice-Exceptional Learners: Implications and Applications. Gifted Child Quarterly, 58(3), 217-230. https://doi.org/10.1177/0016986214534976

Ronksley-Pavia, M. (2015, September). A Model of Twice-Exceptionality: Explaining and Defining the Apparent Paradoxical Combination of Disability and Giftedness in Childhood. Journal for the Education of the Gifted; Thousand Oaks, 38(3), 318-340.

Rosin, H. (2014, March). Letting Go of Asperger's. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/03/letting-go-of-aspergers/357563/

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