Functioning with High Functioning Autism
When many think of a child with the diagnosis of AUTISM, it is clear a variety of thoughts come to mind. Often times people may think of children who are non-verbal, lack social skills, have stimming behaviors, and are bothered by loud noises. These challenges may be clearer to identify which may give the general public an idea as to how to react. Autism Spectrum Disorder is as it states - a SPECTRUM. While one end of the spectrum may be non-verbal and having minimal social skills, the other end of the spectrum may be described as children who are spacey, who are a bit “off” socially, and who have behaviors which may sometimes appear as obsessive-compulsive.
Many still use the phrase Asperger’s Syndrome to describe children who are high functioning. The DSM-5 now describes all ends of the spectrum under the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder which have the descriptors outlined below, described by three severity levels: 1. Requiring very substantial support. 2. Requiring substantial support. 3. Requiring support.
Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interest or activities.
Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period.
Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
“High Functioning Autism” can be deceiving as there may be some behaviors which do not require much support. Many may often ask parents, “Are you sure they’re autistic?” or “Is it something they can grow out of?” It is important to understand disabilities are not always visible, and disabilities present differently in each person. One in every 68 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the United States, and meeting one child with autism in no way represents all children with the diagnosis. The general public’s understanding of autism and their expectations of these children may often be a bigger challenge than the child’s disability.
So what do we do when a child…
…can engage so well with adults, but has difficulty approaching peers?
…can understand literal directions, but is unable to respond in full sentences?
…suddenly stops playing musical chairs and begins to organize the chairs?
…cannot move onto the next activity until every Lego is in height order?
…wants to share every dinosaur fact under the sun with you?
…presents just as his peers at first glance, but does not “get things” as quickly and falls behind in group activities?
What do we do when we see a child of average intellect, who is a touch behind his peers in speech and motor abilities, has poor concentration (unless he is putting something in an order which makes sense to him), and does not understand everything which is said because he is so literal?
Do we find a way to further reach him? Or do we leave him behind as to not hold the group behind? Furthermore, do we quietly judge and criticize the parents for not doing more for their kid? Or do we think, “If that were my kid…”
To assist with answers to some of these questions, here are five easy strategies to assist children diagnosed with autism and who are highly functional. These strategies could be used by school professionals and households alike.
Prompt for attention. Children with autism may hyper-focus on one detail that they could miss things happening around them. When giving general directions to a group, say the child’s name before the directions, so you are sure to have their attention.
Prep Transitions. Pulling any child away from an activity they enjoy may be difficult. A child with autism may react more severely than a typical child. Prep the child that an activity is about to end, or a transition will be taking place at least two times before it is time to transition or disconnect. This strategy may cease a severe reaction (-aka- tantrum), or at least decrease it.
Use a schedule. Children in general innately thrive from routine. When a known order of events is changed, or if something is perceived to be changed, it disrupts the internal sense of security and the knowing of what is coming next. Just as with transitions, prep children as much as possible so they are not caught off-guard with last minute changes.
Support social interactions. When children are toddlers they all parallel play, while keeping the focus on themselves. As children grow they learn how to initiate and continue play with their peers; children with autism who are highly functioning may think chasing and being chased is sufficient. As we are all aware, children can be cruel, whether it is intentional or unintentional. By the time children are school aged, they are able to identify who is fun to play with, and who is “a little weird.” During unstructured situations like recess and lunch, find kind buddies, help children initiate and develop age-appropriate language, and decrease overwhelming stimuli so children diagnosed with autism may meet more opportunities of success.
Highlight strengths. Children with autism are not different than those without this special diagnosis. They do, however, have different strengths and abilities which may set them apart from the average child. Use their incredible memories to set reminders in the classroom and find opportunities to share all they know about outer space, presidents, or dinosaurs. Make them feel special… not different or strange.
As may be noted, these strategies are beneficial to use with any child. Children with autism are no different than those without the diagnosis. They just require extra patience and love.
As for the parents…
Parents who have children with special needs also have special needs themselves. They need to know more, do more, reinforce more, soothe more, have more patience and show more love than the average parent. Think about parents and their special needs before excluding their children and doing something that will make them feel more alone and isolated. It already stings knowing your child may be set apart or excluded in some way by their peers, do not let the same be true from adults.
As we celebrate World Autism Awareness Day on April 2nd, it is my hope we can all see past the label, past the same outfit worn all week, and past the quirks that make our kids so very special.
Empower different. Reinforce acceptance. Love all.
Vanessa De Jesus Guzman is an Educator and a Board Certified Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked with children and families for two decades. Vanessa is the owner and CEO of Free to Be Mindful - a private practice located in Ridgefield, New Jersey.
Vanessa is passionate about helping moms, kids and educators with mindful living, mental health and personal growth through efforts including:
Host of the Free to Be Mindful Podcast which provides bite-sized tips and guided meditations to anyone working with kids
Founder of Amiga Moms, a supportive network for 21st century moms offering educational events founded in mindfulness
Public Speaking and Professional Development for parents, educators and young adults on topics such as mindfulness, building healthy relationships with kids, self care, mental health and more.