What Is High Functioning Autism?

By Sarah Fader

Updated February 17, 2020

Reviewer Karen Devlin, LPC

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Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is usually first seen in children between two and three years of age. The symptoms vary in severity and can even start to show right after birth but are not usually noticed until the child is older and starts missing developmental skills goals. There are three main characteristics of autism spectrum disorder symptoms, which include:

  • Repetitive behavior patterns
  • Impaired social skills
  • Impaired communication skills

While autism has different levels of severity, there is no universal definition agreed upon of what high functioning autism is supposed to be. However, there is a general explanation that medical experts tend to use when referring to this term. Although these may vary depending on the physician, the general guidelines are:

  • Mild symptoms of autism spectrum disorder but are significant enough to be noticeable
  • An individual with autism spectrum disorder who can work or attend school successfully
  • Someone who can hide their symptoms of autism spectrum disorder so they can pass for someone without autism
  • An individual with autism spectrum disorder who scores higher than 70 on the IQ test
  • Those who are diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome

Therefore, someone with high functioning autism has their symptoms and characteristics, and although they are typically extremely intelligent, they may have some noticeable symptoms such as sensory dysfunction and anxiety. That is why defining high functioning autism is so difficult. To separate the different levels of autism, experts now use the term autism spectrum disorder when referring to the type of autism an individual has.

In the News

Recently, there has been a great deal of coverage on the news about autism spectrum disorder. Within the last ten years, controversy over the cause of autism spectrum disorder has come into play. Many parents believe that certain immunizations cause autism because of an ingredient called thimerosal in the vaccine. Thimerosal is a preservative used to prevent bacteria and fungi from tainting the vaccine when using certain multi-use vials. However, thimerosal does contain mercury, which has been known to cause brain damage, coma, and even death.

Approximately one out of every 68 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This number has been growing every single year for the past ten years. However, there are many support groups and websites out there with resources that can help you deal with this as a parent or caregiver. The first thing all parents of those with autism spectrum disorder need is support.

The History of Autism

In the 1930s, autism was mistaken as a form of schizophrenia and was being treated by inducing seizures in patients. In the 1940s, Leo Kanner started the term infantile autism, and Hans Asperger started calling autism Asperger's syndrome. But, they were considered to be two different disorders. By the 1950s, theories started to be formed by researchers such as theorizing that children with autism symptoms were harmed by their mothers. Luckily, these theories were disproved right away. In 1972, the first training program for autism was developed by Eric Shoper.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the term infantile autism disorder change to autism disorder, and it was added to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is a guide used by mental health professionals to more accurately identify and diagnose autism spectrum disorder. Another term, pervasive developmental disorder- not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), was added as well, which included those types of autism not previously diagnosed. In 2013, autism disorder was changed to autism spectrum disorder in the DSM, and all subcategories were eliminated. Although it took society quite a while to figure out what autism spectrum disorder was, a great deal of progress has been made, and more research is being done every day.

Types of Autism

The different levels of autism were changed in the DSM in 2013 to reflect the new diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, but they still vary quite a bit with each patient. The types of autism can be difficult to discern because they are unique to every individual. There are three discernable types of autism on the spectrum disorder, which are high functioning autism, Asperger's syndrome, and low functioning autism.

High functioning autism: This is a term that is most often used to describe those patients who have the most mild symptoms of autism. Some of the most common symptoms in this type of autism may include:

  • Those who have trouble with communicating and social interactions
  • Trouble adjusting to new experiences or routines
  • Avoiding physical and eye contact
  • Focusing on one activity such as lining up objects or toys
  • Repetitive or persistent behaviors
  • Lack of emotion
  • Have a monotone or robotic voice
  • Highly sensitive to lights, sounds, and touch
  • Speech delays

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Asperger syndrome: Those who have Asperger's syndrome have symptoms of those with high functioning autism but with a higher severity. They may also have other symptoms that those with high functioning autism do not share such as:

  • Doing the same thing over and over again
  • Trouble grasping the meaning of certain words
  • No trouble with speech delays

Low functioning autism: Individuals with low functioning autism have all the symptoms above but in a more severe form. They also have other symptoms, which include:

  • Flapping their arms or some other repetitive movement
  • Refusal to eat certain foods or touch certain materials
  • Severe mental breakdowns that include screaming, rocking, and flailing

Those individuals with low functioning autism need 24-hour care from parents or other caregivers and have special educational, physical, and emotional needs. Some experts say it is like trying to understand what someone is saying if you do not understand the language they are using, such as when you are in a foreign country. This can make you very frustrated and aggravated. That is how an individual with low functioning autism feels all of the time.

Some Facts About Autism

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism spectrum disorder affects boys more than girls. Only one in every 198 girls have symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, but about one out of every 42 boys have symptoms of this disorder.
  • Also, every year, approximately 50 thousand teenagers with autism spectrum disorder will lose school-based autism services because they become adults and are no longer in school.
  • Approximately 33% of those with autism spectrum disorder have an intellectual disability, and that same amount are unable to communicate verbally.
  • Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder have other disorders as well such as phobias, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, insomnia, seizures, and intestinal disorders.

How Can I Tell If My Child Has Autism?

Most often, children with autism spectrum disorders are not diagnosed until they are about two or three years of age. This is thought to be because this is when children are supposed to be developing their social skills like playing with other children and sharing toys. This is also the time when parents or caregivers may start to notice that their child is not initiating hugs or kisses, is not as animated as other children, or does not show emotions like others do.

Also, many children are entering structured play at preschool or daycare where the teacher or daycare provider notices something wrong. This is partially why many parents and experts believe that autism may be caused by immunizations since this is when many of the vaccines that include thimerosal are introduced. However, other children may not show any symptoms until they are older. Some of the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include:

  • Difficulty in fitting in at school
  • Trouble making friends
  • Having a hard time following directions
  • Difficulties with completing certain tasks and homework
  • Inability to follow conversation or taking turns when talking to others
  • Would rather be alone than with others
  • Unable to form intimate or meaningful relationships
  • Aggressive or anxious behavior such as hitting head against a wall
  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep
  • Depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Does not show emotions
  • Unable to read other people's emotions

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While the Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children get screened for development disorders at their normally scheduled doctor's visits at 9, 18, and 24 months, others say that a specific autism spectrum disorder screening should be done at the 18 and 24-month visits. To diagnose this disorder, a team of professionals is usually involved, which include a family doctor, pediatrician, and maybe a psychologist or psychiatrist.

How Is Autism Treated?

While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, there are many different kinds of therapies and behavioral programs that can help. These are designed to improve your child's quality of life depending on their autistic level of severity, no matter what it may be. The best plan includes coordination with a therapist, physician, school, and parents to make sure the treatment is successful.

The sooner your child can get help for autism spectrum disorder, the better off they will be. However, sometimes getting that diagnosis is harder than you would have thought. Sometimes, determining whether a child has autism spectrum disorder is difficult, especially if he or she is on the high functioning autism end of the spectrum. It is usually the parent or a teacher who discovers that there may be something different about their child and it seems that sometimes they may have trouble "convincing" a doctor that there is something wrong.

For some, the best source for getting help is a therapist. If you are looking for help with your child because you believe they have some form of autism, you can contact BetterHelp.com, and they can find you a therapist that can help you. They are the largest source of mental health counseling online in the world and have over 2,000 certified therapists and licensed psychologists to help. Even better, you do not need an appointment. You can just answer a few questions, and the people at BetterHelp.com will find a therapist that is best for your situation. You can communicate with the therapist on the phone or online, or we can find a therapist in your area if you would rather see someone face to face.

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Parents of autistic children also need help with their situation because being a parent of a child with autism is not easy. Parents need to learn how to cope with their child's different way of expressing themselves and their ability to deal with the outside world. Sometimes, it can be difficult for a parent to accept that their child has autism but talking with a therapist can help you come to grips with the differences you and your child will have to face. The support you receive from a therapist can help you and your child succeed in ways you never thought possible. You just have to take that first step.

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