What is High functioning autism?

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This blog will discuss what high functioning autism is. 

We will also briefly touch upon how it is identified, how high functioning autism affects life, and what are the management options for high functioning autism. 

What is High functioning autism?

High functioning autism refers to conditions where the individual, who has been diagnosed with autism, can read, write, speak, work, and go about their daily lives without much assistance and care. 

High functioning autism is not recognised as an official diagnosis. It is an unofficial term that is used to refer to individuals with autism who have significant independent skills to live. 

Individuals with this kind of autism have developed language and communication skills, live independently, and have successful relationships and careers. 

One also has to mention that the term “high-functioning autism” is also controversial because of the fact that it is not a diagnosis and it is also viewed as misleading and ableist- discriminates based on ability- as it assumes that individual with autism who are not high-functioning are “low-functioning”

How is High functioning autism differentiated from other forms of autism?

High functioning autism is not a diagnostic criteria, it is instead a non-universalised, not specified judgement on how an individual functions in society which is why there is no agreed upon criteria to differentiate who is “high-functioning” and who is not. 

This judgement is usually made based on subjective cultural norms by various specialists. So the judgement tends to differ across situations and contexts. 

Some of the unofficial criteria based on how this form of autism is differentiated or identified include:

  • Individ Ausl with HFA received a diagnosis of autism in adulthood or late teens. 
  • Does well in academics and at work.
  • Does now exhibit developmental delays during childhood
  • Does not exhibit obvious langage challenges. 
  • Can live without care and support

Now these few criterias tend to pose some problems as it prioritises some forms of functioning over others, judges people for being able to have this functioning as a result discriminates.

These criteria are also heavily influenced by cultural norms of academic success and language and also because they are “‘high-functioning” it can ignore an individual’s need for help. 

Another very important aspect of this particular term that makes it so controversial is that the term takes into regard the society’s experience of the individual with autism when in fact it should be the individual’s experience of society. 

Because of the tendency to prioritise certain functions over others or certain intensity of the condition over others, the disorder has now been considered as a spectrum which does not prioritise certain functions over others. 

The spectrum is now divided into three levels and each level acknowledges the fact that each individual on whatever level requires the support and access to efficient and ample support regardless of how they function. These levels include:

Level 1 where people have symptoms of autism but it does not interfere too much with work, school and relationships. 

Level 2 where people do need some support on a daily basis and training that involves speech and social skills

Level 3 where individuals require substantial support on a daily basis including full-time aids, and therapeutic support. 

How does high functioning autism affect one’s life?

Here are some ways that  autism affects the life of an individual- even individuals who have level 1 form of autism or “high functioning” autism.

They experience sensory problems where they are overloaded or overwhelmed by things like noise, crowds, bright lights, strong tastes, smells, and being touched.

This can make it hard for them to adapt to new things, new routines, new places, and at times causes problems in their relationships and their quality of life. 

They can have a hard time understanding social and communicative cues which can lead to social awkwardness. They might have a hard time understanding greetings, humour, regulating their tone, allowing others to talk etc which can make it hard for them to maintain social relationships. 

They can also be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, mostly individuals who do not know or people around them who do not know and understand autism. Experts believe that it could be because of social rejection (Medicalnewstoday).

They might have a hard time managing their lives, their schedules, and also have a hard time adapting to the uncertainties of their lives and various changes that can come about unexpectedly. 

They also have difficulty regulating their emotions- they might overreact or under-react in inappropriate situations because of their inability to understand, cope, and manage their emotions. 

Individuals with high functioning autism can also struggle with communication- verbal or non-verbal communication. 

How to manage high functioning autism?

When it comes to the management of high-functioning autism, most of the efforts to manage symptoms is an effort for them to improve their quality of life. 

The management is not a treatment or a cure, rather it is aimed towards improving skills and strengthening them in an effort to help individuals learn how to cope with challenges such as regulating distress in the face of change. 

Most of the management training involves:

  • Building self-control
  • Regulating emotions
  • Improving adaptability
  • Improving communications skills
  • Reducing anxiety (verywellmind)

These are usually done through therapy and support groups facilitated by a trained professional who has expertise and training in the field related to autism. 

Treatment also includes psychoeducation for the individual as well as their family. Forms of treatment can also include:

  • Physical therapy for movement coordination etc.
  • Speech therapy 
  • Family therapy
  • Social skills training 
  • Behavioural training and therapy. 
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Applied Behavioural therapy

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions that involve challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. 

According to the Centre for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States and usually symptoms of the disorder appear at the age of 2-3 years old while some developmental delays are observed as easily as 18 months. 

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, there are not just one but many subtypes of the disorder which vary according to the variation in genetic and environmental factors.  It also has a distinct set of strengths and challenges for each person on the spectrum.

People with autism Spectrum disorder vary in the way they think, learn, and problem solves- some can be highly skilled as it is the case for people with asperger’s syndrome or severely challenged enough to be considered a disability and require intense support and care from other people while others do not. 

Several factors increase the risk of the development of autism such as genetics, environment, parental substance abuse, family history, maternal and paternal behavioural risk factors like smoking or drinking when pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

The disorder is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, and  mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues.Research shows that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism.

What is the Diagnostic criteria of Autism?

Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder is as follows:

To meet diagnostic criteria for ASD an individual must have persistent deficits in each of three areas of social communication and interaction and at least two of four types of restricted, repetitive behaviours in different contexts.

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests and emotions; to failure to engage in social interactions.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviours used for social interaction, from poor verbal and nonverbal communication; deficits in understanding and use of gestures; lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, from difficulties adjusting behaviour to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech 
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualised patterns of verbal or nonverbal behaviour (e.g., extreme distress at small changes)
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
  • Hyper- or hypo reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment 
  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
  • These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay.


This blog discussed what high functioning autism is. 

We have also briefly touched upon how it is identified, how high functioning autism affects life, and what are the management options for high functioning autism. 

What is the correct term for high functioning autism?

Because the term “high functioning” is met with controversy because of the fact that it is not a diagnosis and it is also viewed as misleading and ableist- discriminates based on ability- as it assumes that individual with autism who are not high-functioning are “low-functioning” the more appropriate term can be “low-support” or Level-1 autism. 

What can I say instead of functioning labels?

You can replace the functioning labels with support labels. So instead of high functioning individuals with autism it becomes individuals with low support needs. 

At what age do autistic meltdowns start?

Usually children with autism are diagnosed as early as 3 years old however, these autism meltdowns can start much earlier- by 18 months.  Often it is these meltdowns that usually get parents to bring their child into child care services leading to diagnosis. 

Is high functioning autism considered a disability?

All forms of Autism on the spectrum- level one to level three is a developmental disability, this includes individuals who have high functioning capacity. 

Is high-functioning autism aspergers?

Asperger’s syndrome was a medical term used to diagnose individuals with autism who display above-average intelligence.

However, this term is outdated and no longer used. However, it is to be mentioned that while individual with aspergers may be highfucntioning all highfincitong indidvdiual does not fit the description of aspergers at the same time, all individual who have high intelligence with autism does not mean that they are all high functioning. 


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

Rudy.L.J. The Challenges of Living With High-Functioning Autism. Verywell Mind. Retrieved on 7th February 2022. https://www.verywellhealth.com/treatments-for-adults-with-asperger-syndrome-259901#toc-goals-of-treatment

Holland. K. High-Functioning Autism. Verywell well. Retrieved on 7th February 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/high-functioning-autism

Villines. Z. What is high functioning autism? Medicalnewstoday. Retrieved on 7th February 2022. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/high-functioning-autism

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