Understanding High-Functioning Autism: 5 Tips for Parents!
9 mins read

Understanding High-Functioning Autism: 5 Tips for Parents!

What Is High-Functioning Autism?

High-Functioning Autism (HFA) is a term some use to characterize individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have average or above-average intelligence. In many cases, these individuals do not experience significant language delays and can also possess unique strengths and capabilities. However, they may still struggle with communication, which can limit their social interactions and general progress. 


Additionally, many note that HFA individuals often require less support and demonstrate more autonomy in comparison to those with more profound degrees of ASD. In other cases, because of the way HFA individuals seemingly typically function, some providers overlook or do not diagnose HFA individuals with autism because of their traits. 


The term “high-functioning autism” is no longer considered clinically accurate as it defines autism based solely on intelligence quotient demarcation. Experts now believe that the label should be left out altogether as it can be unhelpful and even harmful, worsening the stigma that people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis still face.


Despite this, some individuals and organizations continue to use the label within and outside of the autism community.


This blog by ABA Centers of America aims to support caregivers and autism allies in understanding high-functioning autism and its distinct characteristics. It will also provide valuable tips for helping individuals with HFA lead more fulfilling lives. 


Additionally, we will explore why labels such as “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” can be detrimental to the autism community and why it is vital to embrace the diverse range of neurodiversity instead. 


So, please keep reading to discover how you can empower HFA individuals to reach their full potential!



Understanding High-Functioning Autism Or HFA


People with HFA may excel in specific areas like math, music, or art. Still, they may struggle with abstract thinking and understanding sarcasm or jokes. It’s important to realize that HFA is a lifelong condition that can manifest differently in everyone who has it.


Individuals with HFA are not all the same and may have varying degrees of challenges and strengths in the context of their autism. While some may experience difficulties socializing, others may not, but they may have more trouble with sensory processing.


Common characteristics of HFA individuals include but are not limited to:    


  • Difficulty with social interactions and communication
  • Sensory sensitivities or aversions
  • Rigid adherence to routines and difficulty with change
  • Interests or intense focus on specific topics
  • Difficulty understanding non-literal language, such as metaphors or sarcasm
  • Elevated anxiety levels
  • Challenges with executive functioning
  • Emotional regulation deficits
  • Struggles with physical behavior and impulse control

It is crucial to approach each person with an ASD diagnosis as an individual and not generalize their abilities or struggles.


Strengths of High-Functioning Autism 

HFA individuals have unique strengths that providers, employers, allies, and caregivers should not underscore or dismiss.


These can include the following:


  • Strong attention to detail and focus for extended periods
  • Good memory retention and recollection
  • Intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn deeply about topics for which they are passionate
  • Logical thinking skills
  • Honesty and directness in communication

These strengths can be valuable assets both in personal and professional life. For example, individuals with HFA may excel in jobs that require attention to detail, such as data analysis or research. They may also be incredible musicians, engineers, and lawyers.


The potential is limitless when suitable accommodations and interventions support those who are working and neurodiverse. 


HFA and the Autism Diagnostic Framework Criteria

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) revised the autism diagnostic criteria in the DSM–5–TR. These changes impact how providers diagnose and support patients. According to Autism Speaks, today, the autism spectrum disorder term covers a range of conditions including:


  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
  • Autistic Disorder
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
Some use terms like High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s syndrome interchangeably, which can be confusing for individuals seeking information.


Initially, the introduction of the umbrella term sparked debate, with some viewing the separate conditions now under autism as distinct entities as being unhelpful. However, the spectrum approach to clinical ASD diagnosis is gaining acceptance for identifying and evaluating autism.


The coming years will teach us more about how the spectrum approach can help healthcare providers, families, and ASD individuals.


Looking Beyond Labels and Stereotypes

The concept of high-functioning autism can be problematic as it suggests a comparison with a “low-functioning” form, unintentionally creating a hierarchy within a community that already feels vulnerable and stigmatized.


Autism affects individuals in varying degrees and can evolve, making it challenging to categorize someone as high functioning since their situation may change.


Moreover, the term high-functioning autism fails to capture the immense value that the entire autism community brings. Each person with autism is unique, with their own set of talents and challenges that make them unique. A person with profound autism can still offer invaluable contributions to mainstream society. 


Using a blanket label like high-functioning autism overlooks the diversity within autism, hindering understanding, support, and access to treatments for individuals with this classification. Instead of fixating on categorizing autism levels, society, and autism supporters should concentrate on embracing and celebrating individual differences.


By moving beyond labels and stereotypes, we can gain greater comprehension and appreciation of the diversity in the autism community.


Why High-Functioning Autism Can Go Undetected

The adeptness at specific tasks can sometimes mask the difficulties faced by individuals with HFA. Their struggles with socialization and sensory issues can signal others as shyness or eccentricity. Over time, this can lead to a lack of access to necessary ASD support.


Early identification and understanding are vital to addressing these challenges head-on to improve the quality of life for HFA individuals.


ABA Therapy And HFA Individuals

Fortunately, there have been significant improvements in the lives of individuals of those spectra, thanks to advancements in understanding ASD. Furthermore, the availability of effective scientific interventions like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy has significantly improved outcomes for individuals with autism. 


Applied Behavior Analysis, also called ABA, is a treatment method widely recommended and often covered by insurance for children and teenagers with autism. ABA focuses on objectively identifying and shaping behavior through positive reinforcement techniques, helping individuals build skills and decrease problematic behaviors.


Early identification and interventions like ABA therapy can lead to better outcomes for individuals facing various degrees of autism, including HFA individuals, and ultimately make them a powerful tool. 


Empowering HFA Individuals: 5 Tips for Caregivers

As a caregiver of an HFA individual, it can be challenging to understand their specific needs and provide them with the proper support. Here are some practical tips that can help empower individuals with HFA:


  1. Create Structure: Predictable routines and clear expectations can help reduce anxiety and improve executive functioning.
  2. Foster Interests: Engaging in their highly preferred interests not only boosts self-esteem by allowing them to communicate about the things they love but also opens pathways for social connections and career opportunities.
  3. Teach Social Skills Explicitly: Use role-playing and social stories to teach nuanced social norms and cues.
  4. Sensory-Friendly Environments: Modify environments to accommodate sensory sensitivities, helping HFA individuals feel more comfortable and focused.
  5. Focus on strengths: Focus on developing those strengths rather than trying to “fix” or change them.

Empowering HFA Individuals through Acceptance and Support Leads to Better Life Outcomes

Ultimately, understanding High-Functioning Autism is essential for creating a more inclusive society that embraces variation in all its forms, including neurodiversity. Instead of labeling individuals as “high-functioning” or “low-functioning,” it is essential to recognize and celebrate their unique strengths and abilities. 


Individuals with HFA deserve to be accepted, understood, and supported. By recognizing their distinct talents and challenges, we can create environments that embrace their participation growth and allow them to reach their full potential. 


So, let’s continue to educate ourselves, spread awareness, and celebrate the extraordinary capabilities of individuals with high-functioning autism.


ABA Support for HFA Individuals with ABA Centers of America

ABA Centers of America provides comprehensive ABA treatment programs for children and teens with autism across regions like Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Our expert team of highly trained ABA providers creates personalized ABA plans through evidence-based practices to promote developmental expansion in youth with autism. 


ABA Centers of America supports individuals with autism and their families in building new skill sets and achieving their dreams in a way that reflects their values and what’s most significant to their long-term goals.


For more information about ABA Centers of America and our autism services, don’t hesitate to contact us via this online link or at (844) 923-4222. 


Alongside ABA Centers of America, we can create a more inclusive and supportive atmosphere for those with high-functioning autism.

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