High Functioning Autism

Many myths and legends surround Autism. But is it the same as the movie Rainman? With just an idea, what it brings is more complexity and questions. In particular, high functioning autism is even more complex to observe. But with so many types of autism, how do you know where a diagnosis fits? Let’s look at classic autism to get started.

What is Autism

Autism is one of the most misunderstood disorders today. What is usually called Autism refers to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). There are many different myths and notions in the public eye. Autism was accurately diagnosed and paid attention to very recently, since around the 1980’s. 

In truth, ASD refers to a brain-based disorder with a range and variety of conditions indicated by difficulty with speech, repetitive behaviors, nonverbal communication, and social skills. We know that there is not just one type of autism. An adult or child falls on the autism spectrum which covers a wide variety of challenges and strengths for individuals.

Autism can be diagnosed quite early in kids. Children with autism usually display the most common symptoms around ages 2 to 3. These include repetitive behaviors like body rocking or hand flapping, resisting change, unusual/intense reactions to the senses, limited eye contact, and a variety of others. However, in some more severe cases, aggression or self-injury can present itself.  About 30-50% of people with ASD experience seizures. 

What is High Functioning Autism

We know many people have different experiences with autism spectrum disorder. People with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (HFA) are diagnosed with autism. However, often live very normal lives and have less difficulty fitting into society. Also, it is tough to pinpoint what high functioning autism. HFA is not an officially recognized diagnosis, but a part of ASD. It is a sign of higher relative social skills and not intelligence. 

Individuals with HFA probably are seen by most people nearly as with some small unique behaviors. Their social skills become slightly underdeveloped. They might come across as quirky, or a bit odd or eccentric. In fact, before Autism became a widely accepted diagnosis of its own, many people with high functioning autism would not have been diagnosed with anything at all. 

Many people with high functioning autism would be able to live more or less normal lives. However, it does have a few differences from classic autism. For instance, children with HFA will have social skills and/or IQ’s that are normal or even superior to their peers. They might not have some of the social skills of those without HFA. But they can be able to accomplish many highly complex mental feats. It is important to distinguish the struggle between intelligence and social skills. 

High Functioning Autism Symptoms

There are some signs you can look for when identifying high-functioning autism. Like all individuals on the autism spectrum, people with HFA can often have difficulty with communication and social interactions. They can’t read social cues in the same way and it may result in a difficult time making friends. Sometimes they can become overwhelmed by situations to the point of shutting down. 

Like Autism, symptoms such as lack of eye contact are common. Children and adults on the HFA spectrum can be very committed to order and routine. Once they have a set way, breaking away from it can cause stress and difficulty functioning. 

In schools, teaching children with autism spectrum disorder can be a tricky subject. Also, Autistic children are unique and deal with learning and school social situations differently. Some will do well in school. Others can’t concentrate and overwhelm themselves by the work. A student might be intelligent but have difficulty organizing or keeping track of things. This accompanies other things like them having a hard time with abstract thinking. 

In the working world, some can hold a job while others will find out it is too difficult. It all depends on the person and the situation. However, the lack of social skills can often make it difficult to fit in at workplaces. Often, people with high HFA find their way into jobs that require skill mastery and attention to detail. 

Peer interactions and complex social skills make HFA more apparent. Therefore, the child is overlooked by doctors when the child is quite young. This also explains why sometimes parents won’t look for help until much later compared with parents whose kids show a more obvious set of symptoms at an early age. 

High Functioning Autism vs Aspergers 

To start off, let’s talk about Asberger’s. Asperger Syndrome is part of the autism spectrum. However, it is different in the early development of children from classic autism especially in regards to language. Remember, if a person is on the autism spectrum, many distinctions come into play. In this way, HFA and Aspergers, loosely defined, are there to find the best diagnosis.

High Functioning Autism and Aspergers present themselves in many of the same ways. Those with HFA and Aspergers have average or above average intelligence. Also, they can have difficulty with social interactions and situations where they communication is key.  However, there is one significant distinction that is keeping them from being the same. In High Functioning Autism, the diagnosis requires that as a child, there was a delay in language ability. On the contrary, Aspergers will not have a difficulty with language in development as a child. This is the main and real only distinction between the two.

You might be thinking there isn’t much difference between the two. And you are right. In fact, there is currently a debate about whether or not high functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome should remain separate. Someday they might combine it into one diagnosis. In 2013, a re-definition of Asperger Syndrome occurred and it includes on the Autism Spectrum. 

The original description and diagnosis of Aspergers were basically the same as the diagnosis of autism. The only difference is without the language and cognitive delays in development. In this sense, it becomes frustrating as a parent and child when the terms of a diagnosis are not that clear. 

Treating High Functioning Autism

There are many things to consider when discussing treatment of high-functioning autism. Most importantly, not all methods or attempts at treatment will work for everyone. Because the autism spectrum itself has so much variation, all treatments will depend on the individual person and their needs. 

  • Parent Education and Training: The more skilled the parent or caregiver for the person, the better their results will be. Educate yourself both on the individual with HFA and the diagnosis.
  • Social Skills/Speech Therapy Training: A therapist guides someone with HFA in a series of exercises which are made to help the person learn ways of interacting. In a combination of explicit learning and much practice, speech and social skills can improve. Social skills groups help children in learning how to speak to those around them. 
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy:  This lowers stress, anxiety, and depression. In this kind of therapy, therapists aim to get patients to control difficult behaviors by teaching them tools and ways to deal with their emotions.
  • Applied Behavior Analysis: ABA is shown to improve cognitive and language abilities. It’s was successful since the 1960’s. With lots of needed structure, ABA showed it could improve social skills as well as many symptoms of HFA. 
  • Sensory Integration Therapy: A therapist can work with a student to try to help them maintain have a normal experience of things such as sights and sounds. However, it has the potential to help stabilize their senses, give them more control over their body, and reduced anxiety.
  • Medication: The truth is that there are no medicines that actually treat high functioning autism. Taking medication helps with the side effects of autism such as depression, loneliness, and anxiety. 

HFA – Conclusion

Autism is a very delicate situation. However, knowing to listen to a friend with HFA and talking to a therapist are all good ways to start to understand HFA. Though, HFA can have some very positive outcomes. Give yourself the patience to understand what is happening. It is possible that the social skills and empathy that are sometimes lacking will constantly get better. It is like any muscle, if you want to get better you have to train hard!

Those who are able to catch on to some of the social skills they are lacking will make a huge difference. It is possible they will be in a much better place in society for them. HFA and regular autism are a serious subject that would I greatly with help from a trained therapist.






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author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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