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Child Development

Understanding High Functioning Autism: Signs, Symptoms, and Support Strategies

June 17, 2024
Table of Contents

    High-functioning autism is not a medical term. Often, high-functioning autism is used to refer to someone who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) but does not have a co-occurring intellectual disability and is able to conduct all or most daily life activities on their own. The term is largely considered outdated but is often used informally. Many people use other phrases, like low support needs, instead, which aligns with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used to diagnose mental health problems. 

    In the autistic community, you’ll see a broad range of presentations. Kids with high-functioning autism can be highly empathetic, honest, and routine. They might have a special interest that makes them light up or that they know a lot about. Often, these kids also have unique perspectives or thoughts that make adults say, “Wow, I’ve never heard it put that way!” 

    Children with high-functioning autism have both strengths and challenges. A child with high-functioning autism might have some mental health challenges or social problems, like anxiety and trouble in friendships. 

    Whether your child has an official medical diagnosis or you suspect autism and are considering an evaluation, it’s important to get an understanding of what it can look like and the visible or invisible challenges your child might have, as well as how to support them and help them thrive. Here’s what you should know. 

    Challenges of High Functioning Autism Kids

    People might not always know that a child has ASD if they have lower support needs. They might be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or hide struggles they go through emotionally, academically, socially, or otherwise — unintentionally or not. Here are some common challenges among high-functioning autistic kids to be aware of.

    Social difficulties

    One way people in the autistic community can vary tremendously is in social function. You might see autistic adults and kids who can be very talkative, as well as those who are non-verbal. You might have a child who talks about their special interest excessively (others can't get a word in). Regardless, kids with autism may experience difficulty with social cues, social interactions, and trouble forming or maintaining friendships. Their mannerisms and interests may be different from other kids. It can be harder to find the right friends, but they’re out there. 

    Communication struggles

    A significant portion of the social difficulties faced by autistic people relate to communication skills. Often, this stems from difficulty with nonverbal communication. For example, not picking up on things like facial expressions, gestures, or that someone else is bored or uninterested during a conversation.

    Literal interpretation of language is another common issue. In a social interaction, autistic kids might use literal language that comes off the wrong way to others (e.g., "I don't want to play with you right now") without meaning any harm at all. Similarly, they might take what others say literally, leading to confusion or misinterpretation.

    Sensory sensitivities

    Sensory sensitivities can stem from any type of sensory input. Whether it's sounds, touch, or something else, sensory issues can cause serious discomfort for a child. You might notice this through:

    Over or under sensitivity to sensory stimuli

    While many neurodivergent people are overly sensitive to stimuli (e.g., being unable to handle the sensation of denim or clothing tags against the skin, certain scents, or specific noises), it is also possible to have trouble perceiving some senses. Some people are over-sensitive in some ways but under-sensitive in others. 

    For example, it's pretty common to have a higher pain tolerance or threshold with autism. A child with a high pain tolerance could be totally unable to handle other sensory input, even if that input would seem mild or unobtrusive to another.

    Impact on daily functioning

    Some sensory issues may impede daily functioning or cause problems at home, school, or in social situations. For example, uncomfortable clothing or a noise in the classroom that others hardly notice could lead a child to cry, get frustrated, have trouble focusing or getting through the day, and other reactions that adults and classmates might not understand.

    Strengths of High Functioning Autism Kids

    Although kids with an autism diagnosis can experience challenges, there are many strengths frequently experienced within the autism community, too. You may notice the following strengths in high-functioning autistic kids.

    Attention to detail

    Autistic people commonly experience heightened attention to detail. They might be able to pick up on small details, be able to focus intensely on certain tasks, or have strong problem-solving skills. This can be particularly true if the child is deeply interested in something.

    Special interests

    Special interests in autism refer to an intense interest in a specific topic. What that topic is could vary significantly. It could be film and television, a book series, cars, medicine, horses, or something else.

    Although the level of interest a child has in the subject might seem abnormally intense to other people, there's nothing wrong with it. Kids might talk about their special interests a lot, or in inappropriate situations, which parents can help mitigate. However, strengths come with special interests in many cases. For example;

    • Intense focus and knowledge in specific areas: Your child finds enjoyment in their special interest. That in and of itself is enough. Even if they struggle with focus the rest of the time, especially with concurrent ADHD, one huge strength in special interests is that the child can often focus intensely on the subject. 
    • Potential for future career opportunities: Let’s say that a child is interested in learning about fish and wildlife. This could lead to a fulfilling career later on.

    Even if parents may need to have some boundaries (e.g., homework still must be done) special interests should generally be encouraged and can be a very powerful light in a child’s life. 

    Unique perspective

    High-functioning autistic kids can have unique perspectives or ways of thinking, which can be exciting for parents and teachers. Original suggestions, ideas, or ways of solving problems are a few things you might notice. They might be less likely to "stick with the crowd" or say the same things as others, which can be prevalent in daily life activities. 

    If asked for their reasoning regarding how they solved a problem or what led them to do something that seems unconventional, they'll usually give a matter-of-fact explanation. This is powerful and something to encourage, as autonomy can go a long way.

    Strategies for Supporting High-Functioning Autism Kids

    Once a child has an official medical diagnosis, parents might seek various forms of professional support for the child. For example, occupational therapy, therapy for concurrent mental health conditions, or other treatments recommended by the American Psychiatric Association might be indicated. Parents can also support their children by practicing communication and life skills at home, providing accommodations, teaching coping skills, or helping kids find help for co-occurring mental health conditions, if applicable. Consider the following strategies or forms of support. 

    Social skills training

    Social skills training (SST) can be very helpful for kids with a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism or ADHD. Goals of social skills training can include but aren’t limited to recognizing emotions or expressions and understanding appropriate behavior during interactions with others (e.g., starting conversations, ending conversations). This can help with building and maintaining friendships, quality of life, and success at work or school. 

    Teaching social cues and interactions

    Role-play and other tactics, like games, can help kids with an autism diagnosis learn skills necessary for social interactions that might occur in their daily lives. For example:

    • Understanding facial expressions (flashcards and photos can be helpful).
    • Acknowledging other types of nonverbal communication.
    • How to ask other kids to play or decline an invitation politely.

    Reading books and discussing things like interactions between characters or how the characters might feel can also be helpful.

    Providing opportunities for social practice

    Provide opportunities for social practice that make sense for your unique child. Kids on the introverted side don’t have to become extroverts: Short play dates or involvement in after-school or summer activities they’re interested in are two ideas that may be suitable for your child. 

    Communication support

    Often, giving kids “scripts” for specific social situations, like making a phone call (Hi, this is ___. May I speak to ___?”) can be helpful if they're ready and able to do something but aren't sure how. Here are a couple of other ways parents can support kids who have or might have ASD.

    Using visual aids and clear language

    Visual aids can help kids convey and understand things like emotions and activities. For example, chore charts with pictures, flashcards with daily activities, or lists and charts that help kids identify feelings. Clear communication is always critical for children, but especially kids with autism symptoms. Be specific and detailed when you make a request.

    Encouraging expressive communication

    Expressive communication can be verbal or non-verbal, referring to gestures, facial expressions, specific words, writing, or anything else that helps a child express themselves. These modes of expression can aid social communication, so working on or encouraging them can be helpful for kids with autism symptoms.

    Sensory accommodations

    To accommodate a child’s sensory needs, you can modify environments and offer tools that help. If possible, you might first teach kids to identify warning signs that they’re experiencing or about to experience sensory overload. Then, you can teach them how to self-accommodate, or, if applicable, what accommodations to ask for. 

    Is a particular clothing item too uncomfortable? Which ones are more comfortable, if so? What about noises—would they benefit from headphones, a warning so that they can leave the room, or something else? You may need to teach kids how to speak up when they’re uncomfortable before they reach a place of complete sensory overload. 

    If you know what your child’s sensory triggers are, you can create an environment that accommodates them. For example, soft or natural lighting and offering noise-canceling headphones or reducing background noise. At school, a child’s IEP or 504 plan can include sensory accommodations. 


    Autism is a common developmental disorder, and every autistic person is different. Kids with autism spectrum disorder often find strengths in their autistic traits, such as special interests and unique ways of thinking. Challenges can also emerge for any autistic person, both in childhood and adulthood, such as those related to sensory sensitivity and social interaction.

    Working to understand and support kids with high-functioning autism can go a long way. To support your child, you can accommodate sensory needs, practice communication and language skills, look for professional support, and emphasize your child's strengths.

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    Dr. Joe Raiker, PhD

    Joe Raiker, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has extensive training and clinical experience in the principles of behavior modification and cognitive restructuring (i.e., CBT). He provides assessment and psychotherapeutic services to patients of all ages, primarily via Telehealth, including treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Raiker also provides Clinical Supervision for Therapy and Assessment Services at South Florida Integrative Medicine.


    Dr. Joe Raiker, PhD

    Joe Raiker, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has extensive training and clinical experience in the principles of behavior modification and cognitive restructuring (i.e., CBT). He provides assessment and psychotherapeutic services to patients of all ages, primarily via Telehealth, including treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Raiker also provides Clinical Supervision for Therapy and Assessment Services at South Florida Integrative Medicine.