What Is the Difference Between High Functioning Autism and Asberger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s Syndrome and high functioning Autism are often grouped into the same category, or assumed to be one and the same. The two are part of the “autism spectrum” and have overlapping symptoms, which can make it challenging to draw a defining line; however, the two do have certain distinct characteristics.

Classic autism is generally easy to diagnose, and the symptoms are fairly straight forward. Children with autism are generally unengaged, non-verbal, and are unable to perform well on standard diagnostic tests.

“High functioning” autism, on the other hand is a lot harder to diagnose. Ultimately, there’s really no definition of “high functioning” that is agreed upon across the board. People who can perform tasks like reading, writing, and communicating with meaningful language, yet also display clearly autistic behaviors such as being unable to maintain eye contact, or engage socially with others are generally classified as being “high functioning.”

This is where the confusion comes in, however. Are they high functioning autistic? Are they Asperger’s? Or do they fall into the catch-all category of “Pervasive Developmental Not Otherwise Specified” (PDD-NOS)? This is why the terms are so often used interchangeably – and why the syndromes can be easily misdiagnosed.

While some controversy still exists, and the syndromes are by no means easy to define or separate, there are four main areas that help to differentiate high functioning autism from Asperger’s:

Language development

Until fairly recently, this was one of the big determining factors – though, granted, the area of greatest controversy as well. The major difference between whether a person had high functioning autism or Asperger’s was based upon whether that person developed speech typically as a child. The ones whose speech developed typically were classified as having Asperger’s, while those whose speech failed to develop (or developed with significant delay) were diagnosed with autism.

Age of onset

Many researchers feel that Asperger’s cannot be properly diagnosed until a child reaches school age. This is generally attributed to the fact that many characteristics of Asperger’s are not apparent until a child is placed in a social environment. Often a child has been diagnosed with high functioning autism, only to be diagnosed with Asperger’s upon entering school.

Social skills

Children with autism tend to be considerably more withdrawn and often fail to connect socially with others. Asperger’s kids often are interested in socializing, and though they are generally awkward and struggle in this area, they tend to care more about connecting with people. Children with Asperger’s will not always withdraw from others, though they may be awkward in their interaction and fail to pick up on social cues.

Cognitive development

Autism is quite apparent very early in childhood. Even high functioning autistic children do have developmental delays in their cognitive abilities. Children with Asperger’s, on the other hand, often will not show any conspicuous delays in their cognitive learning; in fact, they will often be quite gifted in certain aspects of their schooling.

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