What Is High-Functioning Autism

What Is High-Functioning Autism?

What Is High-Functioning Autism?

High-functioning autism (HFA) is a term used to describe individuals on the autism spectrum, or those diagnosed with ASD, who have average or above-average intelligence and good verbal skills but still experience challenges related to social interaction, communication, and behavior. These individuals may not need as much daily support as individuals with more severe symptoms related to autism spectrum disorders, but some activities and aspects of day-to-day life can still be challenging. The Special Olympics Arizona team is diving into what high-functioning autism entails, how it differs from Asperger’s syndrome, the symptoms associated with it, and how it is diagnosed and supported.

What Is High-Functioning Autism?

High-functioning autism is a subtype of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by relatively mild symptoms compared to other forms of autism. Individuals with HFA typically have normal to above-average intelligence and may excel in certain areas, such as academics or specific interests. However, they often struggle with social interactions, communication, and understanding social cues, which can impact their daily lives.

Is High-Functioning Autism Different From Asperger’s Syndrome?

In the past, high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome were considered separate diagnoses. However, with the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013, Asperger’s syndrome was removed as a distinct diagnosis, and individuals who would have previously been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome are now typically diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with varying levels of support needs, or high-functioning autism. Individuals with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism generally have symptoms in common and will generally have above-average intelligence, narrowed interests, and some difficulty relating to others socially. 

Symptoms of High-Functioning Autism

The symptoms of high-functioning autism can vary widely among individuals but often include:

  • Difficulty with Social Interaction: Individuals with high-functioning autism may struggle to understand social norms, make eye contact, initiate or maintain conversations, and interpret nonverbal cues such as facial expressions or body language.
  • Challenges with Communication: While individuals with high-functioning autism typically have good verbal skills, they may still have difficulty understanding sarcasm, irony, or figurative language. They may also have a tendency to speak in a formal or monotone manner.
  • Restricted Interests and Repetitive Behaviors: Like other individuals on the autism spectrum, those with high-functioning autism may engage in repetitive behaviors or have intense interests in specific topics. They may also have difficulty adapting to changes in their routine or environment.
  • Sensory Sensitivities: Many individuals with high-functioning autism are sensitive to sensory stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures. These sensitivities can be overwhelming and may lead to behavioral responses such as avoidance or agitation.

Diagnosing High-Functioning Autism

Diagnosing high-functioning autism typically involves a comprehensive evaluation by healthcare professionals, including pediatricians, psychologists, or developmental specialists. The diagnostic process may include a number of different screenings and monitoring of behavior over time.

Developmental Monitoring

Healthcare providers may monitor a child’s development over time to identify any delays or concerns related to social interaction, communication, or behavior. Doctors may also speak with parents, family members, or educators to better understand the child’s behavior outside of the medical office in order to have a comprehensive view of the child and their autism symptoms.

Developmental Screening

Developmental screening tools, such as the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) or the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ), may be used to assess a child’s social and communication skills and identify potential red flags for autism spectrum disorder.

Developmental Diagnosis

If developmental monitoring or screening suggests the possibility of autism spectrum disorder, a comprehensive evaluation may be conducted to make a formal autism diagnosis. This evaluation may include direct observation, further interviews with parents or caregivers, and standardized assessments of the child’s social, communication, and behavioral functioning.

Support for High-Functioning Autism

The diagnosis of high-functioning autism can be difficult, as there may not be an easy pathway to finding the right support for your child. While individuals with high-functioning autism often have above-average intelligence and can communicate with those around them, there are still symptoms that may cause issues and require support in their day to day lives. Understanding the symptoms and severity of symptoms for an individual with high-functioning autism is the first step toward providing the best support. Support for individuals with high-functioning autism may include a variety of interventions and services tailored to their specific needs. These may include:

  • Behavioral Therapy: Behavioral interventions such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) or social skills training can help individuals with high-functioning autism learn and practice appropriate social behaviors, communication skills, and coping strategies.
  • Speech Therapy: Speech therapy may be beneficial for individuals with high-functioning autism who experience challenges with language comprehension, pragmatic skills, or articulation.
  • Occupational Therapy: Occupational therapy can address sensory sensitivities, motor coordination difficulties, and activities of daily living skills.
  • Educational Support: Specialized educational programs and accommodations can help individuals with high-functioning autism succeed academically and socially in school settings.
  • Parent Training and Support: Parents of children with high-functioning autism may benefit from education, training, and support services to help them better understand their child’s needs and advocate for appropriate services and interventions.

High-functioning autism is a subtype of autism spectrum disorder characterized by average to above-average intelligence and relatively mild symptoms. While individuals with high-functioning autism may face challenges related to social interaction, communication, and behavior, early diagnosis and appropriate support can significantly improve outcomes and quality of life. With the right interventions and services, individuals with high-functioning autism can thrive and reach their full potential.

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