What is High-Functioning Autism?



High-functioning autism is a term that is applied to or associated with, individuals on the autism spectrum who are deemed to be cognitively higher functioning than others on the spectrum. However, the term is not an official medical term or a diagnosis. Similar to other individuals on the spectrum, individuals with high-functioning autism may show signs of deficiency in areas of emotion, communication, expressions, and social interaction.


High-functioning autism is currently not a recognized diagnosis in Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).


Read More: Infographic: Quick Guide to DSM-5 Criteria


Autism Spectrum Disorder


For a long time, individuals with severe symptoms were diagnosed with autism. However, during the early 90s, milder forms of autism were also recognized – Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism. Interestingly, both have similar symptoms, which is probably the reason for misdiagnosis.

In 2013, the American Psychological Association combined all autism related disorders and gave it a term – autism spectrum disorder (ASD).


However, there are many who continue to refer to high functioning autism as Asperger’s and vice versa. This could be because they are not familiar with DSM-5.


Asperger’s vs. High-Functioning Autism


In America, during the 80s, there were about 1 in 10,000 children diagnosed with autism. However, by 2002, the number doubled – CDC.


The statistic doubled partly due to the broadening of the disorder’s definition, hence the drastic change from prior editions (e.g. the DSM-3 to DSM-4). The DSM-4 was the first manual to include and consider the fact that individuals with high intelligence but with significant impairments in social interaction, communication, and behavioral flexibility, can also be considered as ‘autistic.’


An aspect of Asperger’s that helped differentiate it from autism involves language development. Children with autism typically show language delays such as grunting and pointing, while children of the same age who do not have autism, can string together simple sentences. Children with Asperger’s syndrome, on the other hand, tend to grasp language quickly and occasionally quicker than their counterparts.


Earlier, high Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome were regularly referred to as the same diagnosis. Later, they existed as two different and separate diagnoses. However, with the DSM-5, Asperger’s Syndrome was removed as a diagnosis.


While individuals with high functioning autism may have average or above average intelligence, they face difficulties with communication and social interaction. They cannot read social cues naturally, and may find it difficult to make friends. Such individuals can easily become stressed by social situations as well and likely tend to avoid eye contact and/or small talk.


Individuals on the spectrum who are also high functioning are often devoted to their routine. They may have repetitive behavior that may seem odd to others. Some may do well in school, while others may find it hard to concentrate, making school attendance difficult and overwhelming. Similarly, while a few individuals can hold a job, others may struggle to even land a job. It all depends on the person and the situation. But even for an individual on the spectrum who is able to do a lot, they often struggle in social settings without early intervention and timely therapy.


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