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High-functioning autism

High-functioning autism (HFA) is a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

High-functioning autism is similar to Asperger syndrome. Children with these conditions are likely to be of average, or above average intelligence, but will see the world around them in a very different way to children without these conditions.

The main difference between an HFA and Asperger syndrome diagnosis is often down to developing language skills, which are less likely to be delayed with Asperger syndrome.

What are the signs and symptoms of high-functioning autism?

People with high-functioning autism may show behaviours and signs similar to those seen with other types of autism:

  • Delay in motor skills
  • Lack of skill in interacting with others
  • Little understanding of the abstract uses of language, such as humour or give-and-take in a conversation
  • Obsessive interest in specific items or information
  • Strong reactions to textures, smells, sounds, sights, or other stimuli that others might not even notice, such as a flickering light

Unlike people with other forms of autism, people with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome want to be involved with others. They simply don't know how to go about it. They may not be able to understand others' emotions. They may not read facial expressions or body language well. As a result, they may be teased and often feel like social outcasts. The unwanted social isolation can lead to anxiety and depression.

Causes of high-functioning autism

Autism runs in families. The underlying causes, however, are not known. Potential causes under investigation include:

  • Inherited genetic conditions
  • Other medical problems
  • Environmental factors


Diagnosing high-functioning autism

Children with high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome may not be diagnosed as early as children with more severe forms of autism. That's because the symptoms aren't as noticeable. Symptoms may not become a problem until a child is in school. A diagnosis is based on the doctor's assessment of the child's symptoms in three areas:

  • Social interactions - symptoms such as lack of eye contact or an inability to understand another person's feelings
  • Verbal and non-verbal communication - symptoms such as not speaking or repeating a phrase over and over again
  • Interests in activities, objects, or specialised information - symptoms such as playing with only a part of a toy, or being obsessed with a particular topic

The doctor may gather information about these areas in several ways:

  • Conducting psychological testing
  • Establishing the history of the child's development
  • Interviewing parents and others who have frequent contact with the child
  • Observing the child's behaviour
  • Requesting physical, neurological, or genetic testing
  • Seeking a speech and language assessment

In addition, the doctor may request tests to rule out other causes of the behaviour, such as hearing problems.

Treating high-functioning autism

High-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome can be treated with a variety of therapies. Behaviour training is the primary method used to help people with high-functioning autism overcome problems with social interaction.

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