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Autism is a spectrum disorder. This means the diagnosis of ASD covers a broad range of symptoms and behaviors, such as communication challenges, behavioral challenges, and physical challenges, and even cognitive challenges. In the most severe cases, patients are unable to care for themselves.
However, a person diagnosed with high functioning autism may have an entirely different experience and outlook for the future. Four mom experts discuss this and more.
High-functioning autism is an informal term
High-functioning autism is not an official medical diagnosis but an informal term that people use to describe an individual on the “higher” end of the spectrum in the sense that they can read, write, speak, and independently meet their own daily living needs such as dressing themselves, brushing their teeth, eating and bathing. Our son will be 8 years old later this month and is on track to be able to do all these things, so people describe him as having “high-functioning autism.”
Individuals with ASD described as “high-functioning” often live normal lives. Many people do not realize these individuals are autistic, particularly as they get older and get better at self-regulating and at compensating for the additional challenges that ASD can bring such as difficulty with certain types of sensory stimuli, challenges interacting socially, and rigidity of routine and thought.
Some high-functioning ASD individuals have trouble holding a job; some do just fine. The most important thing to do when parenting a child with high-functioning ASD is to teach them to be defined by their personal convictions, values, physical traits, interests, etc., and not by their autism.
There is no one definition for high functioning autism
High functioning autism, like most things associated with ASD, does not have a one-size-fits-all description. I was chatting to a mom yesterday, at a wedding, about her daughter, who she described as being high functioning. Her daughter was able to read and write at an age-appropriate level, struggled with math, but most noticeably was her inability to cope in new situations. She was also crippled with anxiety, which was often more debilitating than her ASD.
My son, on the other hand, is high functioning ASD too, and apart from being rather quirky, needing structure and routine in order to function and at times not understanding complex social nuances, one would think he was just an ordinary kid. ASD is complex, and whatever label our kids have, the most important thing to remember is that they are our kids and our role is to advocate as powerfully for them as we can.
An independent life is possible
High functioning ASD is not an official medical term. Instead, it is the description given to individuals with autism who have a higher level of cognitive functioning and can usually handle basic life skills as well as verbalize (speak), read and write.
People who are considered “high functioning” usually experience the mildest form of autism on the spectrum and their diagnosis does not interfere too severely with their schooling, social lives, or work. A person with “high-functioning ASD” is likely to live a relatively independent life. While symptoms may be similar, this is not the same as a diagnosis of Asperger’s.
Adults may be able to function well but struggle with social cues
High functioning autism involves the same symptoms as ASD, however, it is less debilitating than severe autism. For example, adults with high functioning ASD may hold a job, live independently, and function well in society. However, they may still struggle with understanding social cues or have difficulty with communication.
They may be highly intelligent but become easily overwhelmed by daily interactions with other people. They may prefer consistency and routine to feel stable and comfortable. While people with high functioning autism may be quite compassionate and empathetic, they may have trouble perceiving other people’s emotional needs.