You will sometimes hear autism divided into high and low functioning. This oversimplification claims that persons with low-functioning autism struggle to cope in normal society, but people with high-functioning autism do not require assistance. On the contrary, there are specific challenges unique to high functioning, which may mean specific solutions are needed.
What is high-functioning autism?
High functioning autism is generally considered one of autism’s milder forms. Autistic traits such as poor communication or social skills are less pronounced, and the individual may be able to function in daily life without it being immediately obvious to other people that they are living with autism. In particular, it is applied to people with autism who do not have intellectual disabilities.
There is no official diagnosis of high or low functioning autism for adults, and it is important to note that many people consider it a highly limited way to categorize the broad spectrum of traits and behaviours that comprise autism, and the many ways it manifests in so many different people. It also does not acknowledge that a person with autism’s functioning may vary day by day.
Particular problems faced by those with high functioning autism
As high functioning autism is less obvious than low functioning autism, it may lead to the appearance that they are coping with life successfully. This may make it harder to access appropriate support, even when their apparent high-level functioning is masking even higher levels of distress. Even if they do manage to ask for help, which can be difficult for people with anxiety, communication problems and social skills deficits, it may be harder to convince others that they need more assistance. If you work with adults with high functioning autism, you may need to make extra effort to recognize when they are having difficulties.
How to support adults with high functioning autism?
Support for people with autism always needs to be tailored to the individual. No two people with autism are the same. Any kind of therapy for high functioning autism for adults should target those areas where they experience difficulties. This may include speech and language therapy, or sensory integration therapy, just as with other people on the autism spectrum. The lack of intellectual disabilities may make it easier for adults with autism to actively participate in different therapies that require more cognitive engagement, such as understanding or memorizing concepts.
Many medical specialists believe that applied behavioural analysis (ABA) is a highly successful technique to assist people with autism to lessen obvious autistic symptoms and learn to behave in a more neurotypical manner. It has attracted some criticism from some advocates in the autism rights movement, who believe it forces those with autism to behave in unnatural ways rather than accepting and celebrating their differences.
It may be a controversial label, but some people with autism do show milder autistic traits without cognitive disabilities, which places them under the high functioning banner. This presents a unique set of obstacles that anyone assisting must be aware of for therapies to be adjusted to their specific need.