Should We Use The Term “High Functioning” to Describe Levels of the Autism Spectrum?

In recent years, the diagnosis referring to High Functioning Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, was removed from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual in favor of Autism Spectrum Disorder. As a spectrum disorder, it reinforces that the disorder is diagnosed based on problems in the same foundational areas, with a diverse range of abilities. Rather than being compared on a scale of functioning, the new diagnosis implies that some symptoms are milder than others. This style is preferred as high-functioning can be misleading and low-functioning can be degrading. While there are clear distinctions between the two that determine the level of support they need, moving away from the idea of “high functioning” allows for personalized approaches based on each individual’s unique needs. 

What does High Functioning Autism mean?

People with autism are classified as high functioning if they have normal to high intelligence quotients (IQs) or excel academically. Although they may have strong language skills, they still struggle with nonverbal communication. Some people who are considered high functioning are successful writers, engineers, and business executives due to their analytical skills and rationality. They have learned to take advantage of their strengths and are passionate about their subjects of interest. They may be seen as awkward or anxious but don’t typically show symptoms that significantly interfere with work, school, or relationships.

Adaptive Skills

While it may sound reassuring to some people worried about fitting in, “the term completely disregards the difficulties these individuals on a day-to-day basis.” For most teens on the spectrum, the biggest obstacles they face are outside of the classroom and in their social environment. Adaptive skills refer to practical tasks related to self-care and responsibility that are necessary to effectively and independently take care of oneself and to interact with other people.  

Some examples of adaptive skills include:

  • Self-care: bathing, dressing, grooming, feeding oneself, and taking care of their health
  • Communication skills: understanding and using verbal and nonverbal language
  • Self-direction: problem-solving, exercising choice, initiating and planning activities
  • Social skills: maintaining friendships, understanding emotions, following rules
  • Independent living: cooking and cleaning
  • Functional academics: using reading, writing, and math skills in everyday life
  • Community engagement: shopping, using public transportation, using community services, participating in community events or in the workplace

Finding Appropriate Resources

The main issue with separating Asperger’s Syndrome from Autism is that services provided to an individual are determined by diagnosis and cognitive abilities. Students with higher IQs but significant social and sensory difficulties may not be guaranteed access to the accommodations they need in traditional classrooms or in the workplace. By focusing the shift away from “high functioning” looks different, a spectrum disorder encourages professionals to acknowledge neurodiversity between individuals with autism. Looking at the disorder as a spectrum encourages them to focus on each individual’s strengths and needs and create personalized treatment plans to ensure they get the support they need. While teens who are considered high functioning may need less support in the classroom, they may need additional help in other areas to prepare them for independence.

New Focus Academy Can Help

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The mission of the program is to use positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The skills they learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and a clear sense of judgement. We teach teach social skills, adaptive skills, and self-advocacy that help students to find success in and out of the classroom.Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits.

For more information about how we help teens on the spectrum, call (844) 313-6749 today!