Children with high-functioning autism are on the uppermost end of the functionality scale for autism spectrum disorders, yet still exhibit behaviors that are often viewed as odd, repetitious, and sometimes, socially inappropriate. Discovering ways to treat them as boys and girls who are capable of overcoming psychosocial challenges and growing into successful men and women is an integral part of setting them up for success in life.
Defining high-functioning autism
In the past, high-functioning autism has often been viewed as another name for Asperger syndrome. In 2013, the DSM-5 reclassified both Asperger’s and autism under the larger heading of autism spectrum disorders. The major difference between the two is that children with Asperger’s do not have identifiable speech and cognitive delays while high-functioning autistic children experience language difficulties and more severe communication deficits.
Children with high-functioning symptoms of autism are often able to learn the social skills needed to establish relationships, build careers, and take pleasure in their own accomplishments. The key to helping them maximize their capabilities lies in implementing a strategy that is purposefully designed to provide education and behavioral modification at home and in the classroom. Children learn the best by watching how others communicate and then modeling the successful interactions they observe.
Putting together a resource team
Parents of a high functioning autistic child have good reason to be hopeful as long as they are willing to adjust their expectation level to accommodate the child’s capabilities and be proactive in gathering together as many resources as possible to help with social, emotional, speech, and physiological development. High-functioning autistic children need a team made up of teachers, therapists, behavioral specialists, and parents to help them develop communication skills, learn appropriate behaviors, and acquire the motor skills necessary to perform age appropriate tasks. As they grow, they will continue to need intermittent interventions to help them learn appropriate norms for various stages of development and behavioral strategies for mainstreaming in the classroom and in society.
Setting appropriate boundaries
Autistic children need discipline and boundaries for healthy emotional and social development. Many parents of a disabled child tend to avoid discipline out of feelings of misplaced guilt or in an attempt to compensate or make up for experiences in life that they believe the child is missing out on. But high-functioning autistic children are still developmentally disabled and relate to the world in a different way. What is meaningful to them may not have the same value to children who are developing “normally.”
Disciplining with redirection
If an autistic child misbehaves he should be disciplined in a way that is appropriate for both his chronological and emotional ages. When there is a wide disparity between the two ages, parents must establish disciplinary protocol that acknowledges the child’s emotional age and yet challenges him/her to take baby steps toward the next level of maturity. If rewards are used in the home for good behavior, then the reward that an autistic child receives should be one that he can appreciate and relate to. He may agree to a play date with a friend as compensation for his efforts, yet not view it as a reward.
Manipulation is a common source of frustration for parents of autistic children. Many parents engage in a power struggle with their child, losing sight of the unmet need that has not been identified. The degree of significance that should be attached to perceived manipulation depends upon a child’s cognitive development. Sometimes, an autistic child is not being deliberately manipulative, but is simply choosing an inappropriate behavior to get a need met. Although manipulation should not go undisciplined, the emphasis should be on disengaging from the power struggle, identifying the unmet need and then redirecting the child on appropriate ways to get the need met.
Avoiding overt signs of preferential treatment
High-functioning autistic children are often able to understand the nuances involved in treating them differently from other children. And while they may lack the appropriate skills to connect in the same way as a sibling, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be accepted or to join in activities that may be difficult for them to participate in. Although severely autistic children usually lack skills necessary to connect as well as the awareness of what it means to do so, high functioning autistic and Asperger’s children frequently yearn for acceptance. It is important for parents, care-givers, and siblings to give a high-functioning child as little preferential treatment as possible in a social setting. Singling him/her out does nothing to help with social skill building and usually causes discomfort and leads to low self-esteem.
Knowing how to treat high-functioning autistic children involves finding creative ways to address their singular needs while being as inclusive as possible. Given the opportunity for optimal psychosocial and physiological development, these children grow up to become meaningful contributors to society eve while they continue to “march to the beat of their own drum.”
Ellen Notbohm, author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, reminds parents and care-givers that being autistic is only one part of what makes a child who he is. Every autistic child is still changing and still groping for the key that will unlock the door behind which he silently waits to be heard.
Setting expectations too high can create extreme levels of frustration but, for the high-functioning child, setting them too low can send a message that communicates expectation of failure. Every autistic child has his own potential and should be given the opportunity to achieve new milestones and acquire a skill set that can help him succeed in feeling good about his place in the world around him.