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What Is High-Functioning Autism?

Learn about high-functioning autism from pediatrician and child development expert Asma J. Sadiq, M.D. in this Howcast video.


So what is high-functioning autism? We know that autism is defined as children who have core deficits in social communications, speech and language development, as well as repetitive restricted activities- patterns of play for example, and stereotypies. A lot of these children can have some of these areas still being impacted which is why we define them as autism, but they are high-functioning. They may have a normal I.Q. They may have speech and language which is really not delayed but still atypical. For example, they can be scripting and have echolalia, but yet they are reading books at and above grade level.

I have kids two and three that are hyperlexic, who have taught themselves how to read, who may have some savant skills and be brilliant with the computers or music for example. And these children can actually function in mainstream settings, and are considered high-functioning, because one presupposes that autism means you have cognitive delay, or that you're not picking up on social cues.

But these children may have difficulty with social cues but they can be structured to function in a regular environment. With little support, you can have high-functioning kids really be mainstreamed, and in some areas even gifted. And they need to have the curriculum accommodated for that. Yet, some of those symptoms, for example the theory of mind. For example, picking up on what other people are thinking or the concept of empathy, or being very concrete or literal can be a problem for these children. So much that they are high functioning; they still have challenges and issues. Parents can be delighted that my child has learned three languages or can play a piano or can remember books verbatim for example, or is particularly good with numbers for example or computer technology etcetera, but they still have issues that need to be looked at.

So their strengths need to be celebrated, and yet we need to continue to provide supports for areas that they have difficulty with. And I think the important thing is the social piece, because you do need social communication. And you can be high-functioning academically, but I want them to be high-functioning socially, making friends, picking up on social cues.

What is interesting with kids with high-functioning Autism is that they can learn quickly. They have the cognition to understand "What do I need to do?" to make friends, to keep friends, to ask appropriate questions. So these children are easier to work with and they can actually counter some of the core deficits easier than a child who's not high functioning, but they still need supports. And, much that we get excited about their strengths, I really don't want you to forget the areas of difficulty that they still need support with.

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