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Defining High Functioning and Low Functioning Autism: A Perspective

Every day I get contacted by parents and individuals on the Autism Spectrum that frequently identify themselves as having “High Functioning Autism” and I felt compelled to discuss what this actually means. In my experience I have come across many different individuals who are functioning in society and who are not functioning in society and some who fall somewhere in the middle. When a parent contacts me and tells me they have an adult child with “High Functioning Autism” but all he or she does is sit at home and play video games throughout day, that is not functioning at a high level. I have clients who are considered more “severe” who have tremendous difficulty communicating who take care of their every day basic needs and navigate the social environment properly. These particular clients are frequently identified as “low functioning” because of their communication difficulties. In reality, this type of client is functioning at a much higher level than the client sitting at home playing video games.

I truly dislike the labels of high and low functioning when it comes to describing an individual on the spectrum because it is misleading. Intellectual ability is not a direct measure of if someone is capable of navigating the social world or taking care of their own basic needs. If a parent is getting an adult child up in the morning then that child is not functioning at a high level no matter his academic, intellectual or potential capabilities. What you see is what you get. So I much rather prefer to use the terms high motivation and low motivation when describing the people I work wth.

For instance, a highly motivated client is one who has an internal desire to reach his or her fullest potential and goes after those opportunities every chance he or she gets. An individual with low motivation is one who prefers to be isolated and avoid social situations and being proactive in changing and advancing in life. It is very easy to recognize the potential in someone, however that is not the person they are until they choose to pursue their fullest potential through an internal desire to achieve more than they currently possess. Many of my clients come to me with a very low amount of motivation due to a variety of circumstances. The most common reason a client does not have the motivation to get more out of life is anxiety. Anxieties can range from having a fear of failure to avoiding being hurt or a vast array of uncomfortable feelings. These clients typically have faced many past failures and have retreated from society to avoid pain and seek out pleasure in their solitude. The desire for friendships and success is there but the motivation to get those things is so low that they give up on the venture.

My main goal when dealing with clients with very low motivation is to rebuild their self confidence and provide them with very small, doable goals where they can start to feel what it is like to succeed again. Small achievements accumulate into larger achievements. It is very similar to the achievement system video games are designed on that keep us playing and seeking out rewards. I strive to make real life as rewarding as the fantasy world of video games, movies, television shows and books. Once a client builds upon theses goals and achievements their desire and motivation grows. They want more. Bigger and better things can be seen in the future. Anxiety is slowly replaced with excitement and the desire to see what will happen next. This can be done with essentially any social situation be it making friends, going on a job interview, starting a new hobby, dating, and more. Every client has the potential to be a highly functioning member of society. What defines that is their motivation to succeed and being on the path towards continued success. If you are not on a path you fall behind everyone else who is advancing. Therefore, forget about labels and look within to see if you are motivated to achieve more out of life. If you don’t have that motivation, then you are not functioning at a high level. I can help you change that.

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