High-functioning autism isn’t an official medical diagnosis. It’s often used to refer to autistic people who read, write, speak, and manage life skills without much assistance.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that’s characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication. Some autistic people need minimal support, while others require substantial support on a daily basis. This is why autism is now referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
High-functioning autism is often used to refer to those with lower support needs. Read on to learn more about it.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) was updated and released in 2013. Before its most recent update, the DSM used to detail a condition known as Asperger’s syndrome.
People diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome had several symptoms in common with autistic people, but they didn’t have delays in:
- the use of language
- cognitive development
- the development of age-appropriate self-help skills
- the development of adaptive behavior
- the development of curiosity about their environment
Their symptoms were often milder and less likely to affect their daily lives than the symptoms of autistic people. They may even have been perceived as “high-functioning.”
However, high-functioning autism has never been an official clinical diagnosis, and Asperger’s syndrome was eliminated from the DSM-5 along with some other neurodevelopmental disorders.
People who have these types of difficulties with social interaction and communication or who display repetitive or restrictive behavior would now simply be diagnosed with ASD. This is regardless of how much support they may need.
ASD is divided into three levels:
- Level 1. People at this level may have symptoms that don’t interfere too much with their work, school, or relationships. This is what most people are referring to when they use the terms high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome.
- Level 2. People at this level require some outside support on a daily basis. Examples of outside support include speech therapy and social skills training.
- Level 3. People at this level require substantial outside support on a daily basis. In some cases, support may include full-time aides or intensive therapy.
While it’s difficult to determine a person’s ASD level, trained psychologists have some tools that can help them accomplish this, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS-2). This assessment is typically paired with a thorough developmental history.
Being diagnosed at a later age can make treatment more difficult. If you or your child’s pediatrician think they may be autistic, consider making an appointment with an ASD specialist. Learn more about testing for ASD.
There aren’t any standardized treatment recommendations for different levels of ASD. Treatment depends on each person’s unique symptoms.
People with different levels of ASD may all need the same kinds of treatment, but those with level 2 or level 3 ASD will likely need more intensive, long-term treatment than those with level 1 ASD.
Potential ASD treatments include:
- Speech therapy. ASD can cause a variety of speech issues. Some autistic people might not be able to speak at all, while others might have trouble engaging in conversations with others. Speech therapy can help to address a range of speech problems. Learn more about speech disorders.
- Physical therapy. Some autistic people have trouble with motor skills. This can make actions such as jumping, walking, or running difficult. Physical therapy can help to strengthen muscles and improve motor skills.
- Occupational therapy. Occupational therapy can help you learn how to use your hands, legs, or other body parts more efficiently. This can make daily tasks and working easier.
- Sensory training. Autistic people are often sensitive to sounds, lights, and touch. Sensory training helps people become more comfortable with sensory input.
- Applied behavioral analysis (ABA). This is a technique that encourages positive or helpful behaviors while decreasing behaviors that interfere with functionality. There are several types of applied behavioral analysis (ABA), but most use a reward system.
- Medication. While there aren’t any medications designed to treat ASD, certain medications can help to manage specific symptoms, such as depression or emotional lability.
High-functioning autism isn’t a medical term, and it doesn’t have a clear definition.
People using this term are likely referring to something similar to level 1 ASD. It may also be comparable to Asperger’s syndrome, a condition not currently recognized by the APA.
If you think that you or your child have any of the symptoms of ASD, see a doctor or specialist. Blogs can be another great source of support.