High-Functioning Autism vs. Low-Functioning Autism

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is identified by challenges with communication and social skills. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that 1 out of 54 children (primarily boys) are affected by autism today in the United States.

As autism is a spectrum disorder, every individual with autism will have their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. While the DSM-5 describes three levels of autism, many individuals with autism are still described as either being “low-functioning” or “high-functioning.” However, these terms do not exist as official medical diagnoses.

The main difference between children with high-functioning autism and children with low-functioning autism usually falls in their behavior and is based on the perspective of the parent or caretaker. Keep reading for a comprehensive comparison between individuals with these two types of autism.

Problems with Defining the Terms

Is a child with high-functioning autism verbal and sharp but has problems in school due to significant sensory challenges? Are they considered low-functioning if they lack verbal communication skills but excel as a visual artist?

These terms are generally used by parents and caretakers of children with autism, and they often cause confusion and misperception because neither term explains the true level of functionality or ability of the individual with autism; neither term fully describes a person’s intelligence level, sensory challenges, unease/anxiety or aggressiveness, talents, or persistence.

As such, these terms need a bit better of an explanation. We’ll take a look at what they really mean for those who are affected by ASD. However, let’s first talk about the three levels of ASD and how they present themselves.

The Three Levels of ASD

Before comparing high-functioning and low-functioning autism, it’s important to describe the three levels of ASD, as these levels are used to describe individuals with high- and low-functioning autism:

  1. Level 1: Individuals with level one of ASD have the mildest of symptoms which do not drastically interfere with their daily lives.
  2. Level 2: People with level two autism need some support in working on social skills as well as speech therapy.
  3. Level 3: Level three of ASD is the most pronounced, and people with this type of autism will require a good deal of support, which might involve an around-the-clock aide or rigorous therapy.

High-Functioning Autism

Now, let’s get into the comparison between high- and low-functioning autism. Children with high-functioning autism are usually diagnosed at level one. They generally display incredibly mild symptoms and usually have a high IQ. They also tend to excel academically.

Some with high-functioning autism might need support, but they are generally able to live by themselves. As implied above, people with autism are generally considered high-functioning when their symptoms are not overly obvious. A person with high-functioning autism will often show the following characteristics:

  • Ability to communicate verbally
  • Awareness of social conventions (such as properly using utensils)
  • Inclusion, with or without support, in extracurricular and academic programs
  • A typical appearance

Children with high-functioning autism tend to be very committed to maintaining order and routine. For instance, they might sing the Happy Birthday song every time they wash their hands or read for exactly 20 minutes before bed each night. Additionally, people with high-functioning autism may be compelled to perform repetitive, restrictive tasks that may seem odd to others. These individuals might discuss the same ideas over and over again, play one song on repeat, or refuse to wear any pair of shoes but their favorite sneakers.

These are some of the most common traits to be expected from those with high-functioning autism. However, regardless of whether your child is high-functioning or low-functioning, they will experience their own unique challenges with social skills, communication, and behavior.

Low-Functioning Autism

Children and adults with low-functioning autism display the most drastic symptoms of ASD and are most often diagnosed at level three. These individuals need support from a caretaker throughout life and are usually not able to live by themselves. Someone with low-functioning autism will display the following characteristics:

  • Limited or no verbal communication (instead using picture display boards and other technology for communication)
  • Limited social skills
  • Inflexible, repetitive behaviors

Additionally, some individuals with low-functioning autism will show symptoms of an intellectual disability (ID). Early indicators of an ID include delayed development in motor skills and difficulties with learning to talk. As these individuals get older, they will also begin to show the inability to perform daily tasks, such as teeth brushing or getting dressed for the day. Another sign of ID can be displayed in problems with behavior, as well as the incapacity to be flexible to new situations or follow social norms.

Determining the Level of Autism

There is no specific test to ascertain an individual’s unique level of ASD. Rather, a doctor or psychologist needs to spend time with the individual to observe their behavior. This enables the medical professional to gauge the person’s social and emotional development and capabilities, as well as their communication skills. They will also look at the person’s ability to form and maintain relationships with those around them.

Autism spectrum disorder is diagnosable as early as eighteen months of age. However, many individuals do not get diagnosed until later in life, making treatment more challenging. If you suspect your child has ASD, you should go see a specialist at the first opportunity. Various treatment options exist in Little Rock for those with developmental or intellectual disabilities.

For More Information

Remember: regardless of whether your child is living with high-functioning autism or low-functioning autism, they will experience their own unique challenges with social skills, communication, and behavior. However, at Integrity Inc., we are here to help. We have well-trained, experienced staff who are always available, and our services have been tested and modified by years of experience in treating autism.

Let us be the help your child needs to cope with the challenges of any form of autism. Call us today at (501) 406-0442 or contact us online to book an appointment.

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