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Understanding High Functioning Autism: A Comprehensive Guide

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Welcome to our comprehensive guide on high functioning autism, where we delve into its characteristics, diagnosis, treatment options, and the experiences of those living with it. High functioning autism is a term often used to describe individuals on the autism spectrum who exhibit milder symptoms and higher intellectual abilities compared to others with more severe forms of autism. While the term "high functioning" is not an official medical diagnosis, it helps differentiate between varying levels of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

What is High Functioning Autism?

High functioning autism is generally characterized by a higher-than-average intellectual ability and fewer difficulties with speech and communication compared to other forms of autism. However, individuals with high functioning autism still face significant challenges, particularly in social interactions, sensory sensitivities, and repetitive behaviors.

Characteristics of High Functioning Autism

1. Intellectual Abilities: Individuals with high functioning autism often have average or above-average intelligence. They may excel in specific areas of interest, such as mathematics, science, or art, but might struggle with other skills that require social interaction and communication.

2. Communication Skills: While individuals with high functioning autism can typically speak and understand language, they may have difficulties with pragmatic language skills. This includes understanding sarcasm, idioms, and maintaining the natural flow of conversation.

3. Social Interactions: People with high functioning autism often struggle with social cues, making it difficult to form and maintain relationships. They may have trouble understanding body language, facial expressions, and the subtleties of social norms.

4. Sensory Sensitivities: Many individuals with high functioning autism are hypersensitive to sensory stimuli such as light, sound, texture, and smell. These sensitivities can lead to discomfort and anxiety in environments that most people find normal.

5. Repetitive Behaviors: Repetitive behaviors and routines are common in individuals with high functioning autism. These can include specific rituals, strict adherence to routines, and intense focus on particular interests.

Diagnosis of High Functioning Autism

Diagnosing high functioning autism can be challenging, as the symptoms can overlap with other conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or anxiety disorders. The diagnosis is typically made by a multidisciplinary team, including a psychologist, psychiatrist, or a pediatrician specializing in developmental disorders.

Diagnostic Criteria

The diagnostic criteria for high functioning autism are based on the broader criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Key areas considered during diagnosis include:

  • Social Communication and Interaction: Persistent difficulties in social communication and interaction across multiple contexts. This includes deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communicative behaviors, and developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.
  • Restricted, Repetitive Patterns of Behavior: The presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. This can include stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, insistence on sameness, highly restricted interests, and hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input.
  • Early Development: Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period, though they may not fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities.
  • Significant Impairment: Symptoms cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

Treatment and Support for High Functioning Autism

While there is no cure for high functioning autism, various treatments and support strategies can help individuals manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives. Treatment plans are typically tailored to the individual's specific needs and may include:

Behavioral Therapies

1. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): ABA is a widely used therapy that focuses on improving specific behaviors, such as social skills, communication, and academics. It uses a system of rewards and consequences to encourage positive behaviors.

2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can help individuals with high functioning autism manage anxiety and improve their social skills by changing negative thought patterns and behaviors.

3. Social Skills Training: This therapy focuses on teaching individuals the skills needed to interact appropriately with others, such as understanding social cues, taking turns in conversation, and developing empathy.

Educational Support

1. Individualized Education Programs (IEP): In the educational setting, IEPs are tailored to meet the unique needs of students with high functioning autism, providing accommodations and modifications to support their learning.

2. Specialized Instruction: Some individuals may benefit from specialized instruction in smaller, more structured classroom settings that cater to their learning styles and needs.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy aims to help individuals with high functioning autism manage their sensory sensitivities by gradually exposing them to sensory stimuli in a controlled and therapeutic manner.


While there are no medications specifically for high functioning autism, certain medications can help manage co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD. These medications should be prescribed and monitored by a healthcare professional.

Living with High Functioning Autism: Personal Stories and Experiences

Living with high functioning autism can be both challenging and rewarding. Many individuals with high functioning autism have unique talents and perspectives that contribute positively to society. Here are a few personal stories that highlight the diverse experiences of those with high functioning autism:

Sarah's Journey

Sarah was diagnosed with high functioning autism at the age of 10. Despite her challenges with social interactions, Sarah excelled academically, particularly in science and mathematics. With the support of her family and teachers, she developed coping strategies to manage her sensory sensitivities and social difficulties. Today, Sarah is a successful engineer and advocates for autism awareness in her community.

John's Achievements

John struggled with making friends and understanding social cues throughout his childhood. After his diagnosis at age 8, John received social skills training and participated in various support groups. These interventions helped him build confidence and improve his social interactions. John now works as a graphic designer and uses his creative talents to express his unique perspective.

Educational and Social Aspects of High Functioning Autism

Education and socialization are critical areas where individuals with high functioning autism may require additional support. Understanding their unique needs can help create more inclusive environments.

Educational Strategies

1. Inclusive Education: Promoting inclusive education practices that accommodate diverse learning needs and foster a supportive environment for all students.

2. Use of Technology: Utilizing technology, such as educational apps and assistive devices, to support learning and communication.

3. Teacher Training: Providing training for educators to better understand and support students with high functioning autism in the classroom.

Social Strategies

1. Peer Support Programs: Implementing peer support programs where neurotypical peers mentor and support students with high functioning autism.

2. Social Clubs and Activities: Encouraging participation in social clubs and extracurricular activities to help individuals with high functioning autism build social skills and friendships.

3. Community Awareness: Raising awareness about autism in the community to promote understanding, acceptance, and inclusion.


High functioning autism is a complex and multifaceted condition that affects each individual differently. While challenges exist, with the right support and interventions, individuals with high functioning autism can lead successful and fulfilling lives. Understanding the characteristics, diagnosis, and treatment options for high functioning autism is essential for creating a more inclusive society that values and supports the unique contributions of all its members. Through continued research, education, and advocacy, we can improve the lives of those living with high functioning autism and their families.


Check out the CDC's autism diagnosis guidelines for detailed information on clinical testing and diagnosis for Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosing autism.

Learn more about applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy from Autism Speaks.

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