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High-Functioning Autism: Redefining Labels and Differences

High-Functioning Autism: Redefining Labels and Differences

High-functioning autism (HFA) is a term previously used to identify those with autism who possess an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 70 or above, often demonstrating average or above-average cognitive abilities, according to the National Autistic Society. HFA was often associated with those on the spectrum who did not possess intellectual disabilities and were more able to function independently. However, over time, the term high-functioning autism became outdated for a variety of reasons, including changes to the autism diagnostic framework and how the label contributes to harmful stigmas and misconceptions surrounding autism.

This blog post by ABA Centers of Florida will explore what high-functioning autism is. Additionally, it will delve into why the term is no longer common and how we can redefine our understanding of high-functioning autism to support those who identify as neurodivergent by highlighting strengths instead of unintentionally instilling a hierarchy to determine value or personal worth based on abilities through labels.

By the end of the post, we hope to inspire readers to create a more inclusive and accepting world for individuals experiencing autism from all walks of life. So, keep reading to learn about high-functioning autism and what we can do to make things better for each person on the spectrum, regardless of their degree of autism or functioning.

For more information about us, visit us here to learn more about ABA Centers of Florida and read other blogs about ABA therapy and autism.

Defining High-Functioning Autism

Autism continues to be a misunderstood condition due to our still limited understanding of it, how differently it presents, and the unhelpful stereotypes that encompass discussions about brain variances or neurodiversity. However, life for those on the spectrum has tremendously improved as we learn more about ASD and offer better scientific options for symptom management, like Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA therapy.

Today, the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) umbrellas conditions like Asperger’s, Rett’s disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and childhood disintegrative disorder, according to Current Opinion in Psychiatry Journal discussing official updates regarding neurodevelopmental and neurocognitive disorders.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) updated the autism diagnostic criteria in 2013. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) presented new changes in diagnostic criteria for autism, modifying how providers serve and diagnose patients and clients.

The introduction of the umbrella term was met with some controversy, as many people believe that the separate conditions, now simultaneously encompassed under autism, are distinct entities rather than different levels on a spectrum. However, over time, there is growing acceptance and understanding of the spectrum approach to identifying and evaluating autism rather than distinctly classifying conditions.

As it stands, autism is a complex developmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior in many diagnosed. In some cases, individuals can identify autism in early childhood and begin early intervention for better treatment outcomes with modalities like ABA therapy, the gold standard in ASD treatment. ABA therapy targets maladaptive behaviors and replaces them with healthier behavioral alternatives to enhance life and autonomy, among other powerful ABA interventions, to address some of the problematic features of life with autism.

Features of High-Functioning Autism

Typically, the label high-functioning autism refers to individuals on the spectrum who demonstrate above-average intelligence and the ability to communicate appropriately. While they may still experience challenges with social interaction and sensory processing, this group often experiences fewer difficulties with communication and daily living skills compared to other peers with autism. In many cases, those with HFA can live independently, gain conventional employment, and live primarily unaffected.

The symptoms of high-functioning autism are often subtler than those with more severe forms of autism, which can make it harder to diagnose and address. Common symptoms of HFA include:

  • Communication difficulties and inability to understand social cues
  • Sensory sensitivities or aversions
  • Rigid adherence to routines and difficulty with transitions or the unknown
  • Narrow interests or intense focus on specific topics or subjects
  • Challenges with executive functioning, such as planning and organizing tasks
  • Heightened anxiety or emotional regulation difficulties
  • Specialized talents in areas such as art, music, or math
  • Difficulty with abstract thinking and understanding emotions
  • Need for clear and explicit instructions
  • Difficulties with physical and emotional self-regulation and impulse control.

Strengths of High-Functioning Autism

However, many individuals with high-functioning autism also have a range of strengths, including but never limited to:

  • Exceptional attention to detail and problem-solving abilities
  • Intense focus and dedication toward tasks that can last for extended periods
  • Distinct perspective and innovative thinking patterns
  • Creativity
  • Exceptional memory
  • Ability to excel in specialized areas or topics
  • Honesty and directness in communication
  • Logical and analytical thinking

Unfortunately, these strengths are often overlooked or overshadowed by the challenges associated with autism, propelling more harmful stereotypes and misunderstandings that perpetuate stigma and hinder opportunities for individuals in this community. By moving past labels and stereotypes, we can begin to understand and appreciate the diversity within the autism population and how it contributes to a more diverse, dynamic worldview.

Beyond Labels and Stereotypes

The term high-functioning autism is inherently problematic because it implies that there is a “low-functioning” or “less-than-ideal” version of autism, unintentionally creating a hierarchy of value within a community that already, at times, feels vulnerable and stigmatized. Additionally, the degree to which autism affects the individual can vary greatly and evolve, making it difficult to label someone as high-functioning since their status can change.

Furthermore, the label high-functioning autism does not appropriately represent the incredible value the entire autism community offers. Each person with autism is very different, possessing distinct strengths and challenges unique to them; even if they are profoundly affected by their autism, their contributions are no less incredible or essential.

Using a one-size-fits-all label like high-functioning autism ignores the variances that autism presents, limiting understanding, support, and even treatment access for individuals with high-functioning autism. Instead of focusing on classifying levels of autism, society, and autism allies should refocus their efforts on embracing and celebrating the differences of individuals who are neuro-delightful and the contributions they bring while accommodating their needs.

Breaking Barriers to Progress Is Possible!

In conclusion, it is crucial to challenge the misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding high-functioning autism and understand why the term can be problematic. It’s also vital as a society that we move away from limiting labels and embrace the unique strengths and abilities of everyone on the spectrum. However, we must also recognize and proactively mitigate the challenges ASD individuals may face and offer accommodations so that everyone can participate in their community.

Our efforts as a global community should include:

  • Challenging the biases that still exist around autism.
  • Increasing access to reliable resources.
  • Providing education to those who are unfamiliar with neurodiversity.

When we understand and embrace differences, we can create environments where individuals on the spectrum experience acceptance for who they are rather than judgment based on societal expectations of who they should be. This acceptance and integration not only benefit those with autism and their families but also foster a safer and more diverse society for everyone.  

More about ABA Centers of Florida

ABA Centers of Florida provides high-quality Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy services for children and teenagers with autism, including those who may identify as having high-functioning autism. Through our ABA care, our clients learn incredible skill sets they carry with them throughout their lifetime.

Our team of highly trained ABA professionals commit to helping individuals with autism, regardless of the degree of its effects, reach their full potential and thrive in life on their own level. ABA Centers of Florida offers families across Florida state, including areas like Doral, Miramar, Port Saint Lucie, Tampa, Orlando, Boca Raton, Melbourne, Davenport, Kissimmee, and Bradenton, a variety of individualized ABA therapy program options, including in-home ABA therapy, parent training, and autism diagnostic support.

Contact us via this online form or at 772-773-1975 to learn more about our autism services and how we can help individuals on the spectrum live happy, fulfilling lives as valued members of their community. 

Together, we can celebrate each other’s unique perspectives and foster a world where everyone is accepted and feels valued regardless of their autism status.

Discover how our autism treatment services can help you.

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