Some people with autism may be described as high functioning. We break down what is meant by this term, and the implications it has for your child.
The term “high functioning autism” is occasionally used to refer to a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but exhibits mild or unnoticeable symptoms. This term is used informally and does not have any medical basis. The term can also be somewhat problematic as it tends to cast a divide between people with ASD who exhibit milder symptoms, and people who require greater amounts of support due to their condition. It is important to remember that while all people with autism experience the condition differently, and so will have different indicators, autism does not make a person defective, and any person with autism is fully capable of living a rich and happy life.
When people refer to someone as having high functioning autism, they tend to mean that the person exhibits some symptoms of ASD, but not to the severity where their speaking, reading, writing and social skills are significantly different from people without ASD. Occasionally, the term is used to justify integration of a person with ASD into generalised streams of school or work. Generally, high functioning autism suggests that the person with ASD can conduct themselves independently, and are largely indistinguishable from a person without the condition.
It is important to recognise, however, that high functioning autism is not a medical definition, and there are no clearly defined rules that delineate someone as “high functioning”. Because autism is a neurological condition, and because it is impossible to get inside someone else’s head, we cannot know the exact experience of someone deemed high functioning. It could be possible that they exhibit extreme difficulty in their day to day, but this struggle is not outwardly shown in the form of indicators. It could be that the person has learned and trained themselves to cope with their symptoms and prevent them from showing outwardly. Or, it could be that the person is not fully aware of their symptoms, and potentially could not even have been diagnosed. For this reason, it is important to be informed of the many challenges associated with the term.
Occasionally, people with high functioning autism may have their condition go unnoticed in a school or work environment. In these situations, indicators such as a reliance on routines or a difficulty with reading social cues, may be interpreted as negative or disruptive behaviour. This can cause undue stress for a person with ASD, as in these moments they may become aware that they experience the world differently to their peers, and they may be afforded less respect because of these differences. Because their symptoms can go unnoticed, people with high functioning autism will usually be held to the same standards as neurotypical people, which can create undue burden and stress.
As with all forms of autism, high functioning autism has no true cure, but its symptoms can be treated through cognitive behaviour therapy. A thorough diagnosis and an individualised plan for treatment can alleviate some of the uncertainty associated with high functioning autism, and further improve the prospects of the person with ASD. For more information about how to support those with high functioning autism, contact Lizard Centre at 1300 752 617 for a consultation.