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What Is High-Functioning Autism?

Published on 10/29/2021

Even individuals familiar with the general signs of autism overlook when a child has high-functioning autism. Formerly referred to as Asberger Syndrome, high-functioning autism can look different, yet children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) deserve extra support at the higher end of the spectrum. And, their families do, too! 

Symptoms Or Signs Of High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) 

Here are nine common signs of high-functioning ASD. If they sound familiar, use this 2-Minute, Modified Screening for Children and Toddlers for a more in-depth way to assess whether there’s cause for concern. 

Emotional sensitivity

Parents often misunderstand their child’s high emotional sensitivity. We’ve had clients who tearfully admit they thought their child’s high reactivity to emotions as proof s/he wasn’t autistic because they thought autism results in a more “robot-like” lack of emotion. That’s perfectly understandable. 

Children with high-functioning autism may be better at expressing the spectrum of emotion. Their reactions are not in balance with the situation. Thus, something that irritates or upsets them at the beginning of that day (like not finding a favorite shirt or spilling the milk container) can impact their ability to handle the rest of the day’s schedule. Anger may be expressed more violently, while sadness can result in inconsolable tears.  

Sensory sensitivity (sensitive to certain sensations)

Children with ASD are often very physically sensitive. They can’t handle specific clothing materials because it’s too scratchy, their feet hurt from seams on socks, and only certain shoes (maybe only one pair you can’t find again in a bigger size) can be worn. 

This sensitivity stretches into every aspect of sensitivity, including temperature, smells, lights, and so on. For example, your child may say insulting things when a woman passes by with strong perfume or may refuse to be anywhere near Grandpa because of his scratchy sweater vest. These sensitivities can become unmanageable for families, crippling their ability to have a “normal life” without expert behavioral interventions that teach the child/individual how to regular their behaviors and reactions. 

Fixation (or obsession) with a particular subject

This one can be confusing because plenty of children with higher-than-normal IQs share this quality of fixation or obsession with particular subjects and interests. So, for example, just because your six-year-old can rattle off an exhaustive amount of data bout the solar system does not mean s/he is autistic. However, if s/he can do that and has some of these other signs or symptoms, it’s worth checking in with your pediatrician. 

Children with high-functioning autism may repeat lines of a song over and over again or have to repeat a certain incessant rhythm of activities before they can move on to the next thing. If these fixations interrupt or complicate daily life, they should be addressed. 

Super-verbal

Another misnomer is that all children with autism have delayed speech patterns. This is true for many individuals on the lower end of the ASD spectrum. However, those at the higher-end can become very verbal, very early, and have an above-average vocabulary and ability to “absorb” new words. This can make it difficult for them to communicate with their peers because they get bored in conversation easily and are difficult for their peers to understand. Also, due to their lack of social filtering, children with high functioning ASD have absolutely no problem interrupting adults and correcting them. They may take over conversations when they know more about a topic than the speaker.  

Social troubles

As a result of the above and other behaviors associated with high-functioning autism, most kids struggle socially. Their elevated vocabulary sets them apart, obsession with a particular topic of interest can become irritating, and their emotional sensitivity can be difficult to understand and respond to. This is one of the areas where behavioral specialists can save the day. They work with children across the ASD spectrum to learn how to manage themselves in a more balanced, healthy, and socially acceptable way without dimming their inner-light and sense of self. 

Devotion to routines

Woe to the teacher, parent, sibling, or even a very best friend who tries to disrupt the routine. This can be as “non-threatening” as performing a certain series of activities in a certain order before leaving the house to something more dangerous such as refusing to wear particular clothing items on a cold and icy winter day. This is another area where behavioral specialists can support your family, creating ways to support the child when routines simply aren’t possible or the restrictive habit negatively impacts the individual’s health or well-being. 

Passionately resistant to change

Similar to #6, children with high-functioning autism can violently resist change. For example, a child with ASD may require the same cereal every morning or only eat cereal with ‘O’ shapes. That’s all fine and dandy until you’re staying in a hotel and realize you didn’t bring a box with you and don’t have quick access to a store at breakfast time.  

In this scenario, the individual’s reaction can range from strong violent outbursts or tantrums to a complete refusal to eat at all until the proper cereal is provided. So you can see how a family on a camping trip that didn’t bring the “O” cereal is in a very challenging spot. It can be crippling at some times and debilitating or downright scary at others. 

Extreme self-absorption

High-functioning children struggle to relate to others, which results in a tendency towards self-absorption. While all children are “self-centered,” to a point, this begins to shift at about ages 9 - 13, when their peers begin to matter more and more. However, those with high-functioning ASD struggle to develop outward mindsets that include clothes. Therefore every conversation, every need, and every interest is self-directed. This is another reason they struggle with peers - there’s not much room for conversations or for activities that include or focus on “the other.” 

Their self-absorption manifests in all kinds of ways, including always taking the biggest or best of food items, taking more than others, never offering anyone else anything when they get it for themselves, etc. 

Unusual movement patterns

Things like hand-flapping and walking on toes is also common for children with autism. Due to the repetitive motion (or pressure in the balls/toes with toe walking), these children can wind up with injuries and pain that exacerbate things as they are so sensitive to discomfort or pain. 

Some of these symptoms are also common for children with high IQs or highly sensitive children and may not have anything to do with ASD. If, however, your child exhibits three or more of these traits, we recommend scheduling an appointment with your pediatrician or consulting with a behavioral specialist who can perform an in-depth autism screening assessment. 

Does your child seem to exhibit all or a combination of these symptoms or behaviors? Contact the Autism Response Team. Our compassionate behavior specialists are here to support you as you determine whether or not your child has ASD. If s/he does, your family can rest in the comfort of expert support, training, and resources as you learn to create a healthier, more rewarding, and connected “normal” in your life again. (877) 77-ART-TX. 

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