What is High-Functioning Autism?

What is High-Functioning Autism?

  • Health
  • November 5, 2021
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High-functioning autism is not a medical diagnosis per se. It is a term often used to refer to autistic individuals who speak, write, read, and manage life activities with very little assistance.

Autism is a neurological disorder that is characterized by difficulties with communication and social interaction. Some autistic people do not need much support. Others, however, require substantial support regularly. This explains why autism is now referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

High-functioning autism refers to autistic people with lower support needs. This article explains more about this condition.

What’s the difference between high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome?

The fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was released in 2013. Before then, the DSM detailed a condition known as Asperger’s syndrome.

People with this condition share several similar symptoms with autistic people. However, they did not have delays in:

  • Language use
  • Cognitive development
  • Development of adaptive behavior
  • High level of curiosity about their environment
  • Development of self-help skills appropriate to their age

The symptoms experienced by these individuals were milder and less likely to influence their daily lives compared to the symptoms experienced by autistic people. These individuals were to some extent perceived as high-functioning.

But then, high-functioning autism has never been recognized as a medical diagnosis. It is important to note that Asperger’s syndrome was eliminated from the DSM-5 alongside other neurodevelopmental disorders.

People who have such difficulties with communication and social interaction or who display restrictive or repetitive behavior will simply be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder without taking into consideration how much support they need.

Levels of autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is divided into three levels:

  • Level 1: Symptoms experienced at this level do not interfere too much with school, work, or relationships. This is what people refer to as Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism.
  • Level 2: At this level, there is a need for some external support. Examples include social skills training and speech therapy.
  • Level 3: People at this level require substantial external support regularly. In some cases, the support may include intensive therapy or full-time aides.

How do doctors determine ASD levels?

Determining a person’s ADS level is not an easy task. However, trained psychologists have tools with which they can determine a person’s ASD level. An example of such tools is the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS-2). This assessment is combined with a thorough developmental history.

Diagnosis of ASD can be done as early as 18 months. However, most children, and in some cases, adults, may not be diagnosed until much later.

A late diagnosis can make support more difficult. If you think your child is autistic, make an appointment with an ASD specialist.

Treatment for ASD

There aren’t any standardized recommendations for different levels of ASD. Support depends on each person’s unique symptoms.

People with different levels of ASD may all need the same kinds of support, but those with level 2 or level 3 ASD will likely need more intensive, long-term support than those with level 1 ASD.

Potential ASD support includes:

Speech therapy. ASD can cause a variety of speech issues. Some autistic people might not be able to speak at all, while others might have trouble engaging in conversations with others. Speech therapy can help to address a range of speech problems.

Physical therapy. Some autistic people have trouble with motor skills. This can make actions such as jumping, walking, or running difficult. Physical therapy can help to strengthen muscles and improve motor skills.

Occupational therapy. Occupational therapy can help you learn how to use your hands, legs, or other body parts more efficiently. This can make daily tasks and work easier.

Sensory training. Autistic people are often sensitive to sounds, lights, and touch. Sensory training helps people become more comfortable with sensory input.

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA). This is a technique that encourages positive or helpful behaviors while decreasing behaviors that interfere with functionality. There are several types of applied behavioral analysis (ABA), but most use a reward system.

Medication. While there aren’t any medications designed to treat ASD, certain medications can help to manage specific symptoms, such as depression or emotional lability.


High-functioning autism is not a medical term. It also does not have an established definition.

Users of this term are most likely referring to something with a semblance of level 1 ASD. It may also be compared to Asperger’s syndrome.

If you suspect that your child has ASD, see a doctor without delay.

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