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Understanding High Functioning Autism: Thriving with ABA Therapy

Autism is a complex neurological condition that manifests differently in each individual diagnosed with it. The autism spectrum encompasses a wide range of support needs, abilities, and challenges. High functioning autism (HFA) falls on the less severe end of the spectrum, but it is still misunderstood by many. This guide will clarify what high functioning autism is, explain the outdated and problematic history of the terminology, and share how applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy can help those with HFA thrive.

Understanding High Functioning Autism Thriving with ABA Therapy
Understanding High Functioning Autism Thriving with ABA Therapy

What is High Functioning Autism?

High functioning autism (HFA) refers to people on the autism spectrum who have average to above average intelligence and language abilities. They are considered “high functioning” because they generally need less support in their daily lives compared to others on the spectrum. However, the terminology is controversial.

Here are some key things to know about high functioning autism:

  • Not an official diagnosis: There is no official diagnosis of “high functioning autism.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) just has one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
  • May be called Level 1 ASD: The DSM-5 does categorize different “levels” of ASD based on the amount of support needed. HFA usually refers to Level 1, requiring the least support.
  • Significant challenges can still exist: Just because someone is considered high functioning does not mean they do not struggle. Many “high functioning” individuals deal with issues like sensory sensitivity, anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, inconsistent hygiene, trouble initiating social interactions, and masking/camouflaging their symptoms.
  • Support needs vary: The types of supports needed by “high functioning” folks vary greatly from person to person. One person may need reminders for self-care while another needs help navigating social situations. Support needs depend on the individual.
  • Asperger’s syndrome no longer used: In the past, many higher functioning individuals were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. But this term is outdated and no longer used.

The terminology of high functioning autism is problematic. Functioning labels imply that some autistic people are more worthy or capable than others. In reality, every autistic individual has strengths and challenges that require personalized supports.

The Outdated History of Asperger’s Syndrome

For many years, people on the higher functioning end of the spectrum were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. First coined in the 1940s by an Austrian doctor named Hans Asperger, this term described autistic individuals with average or above average intelligence and language abilities.

However, in 2013, the release of the DSM-5 eliminated Asperger’s syndrome as a separate diagnosis. It was folded under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder. Here’s why:

Ties to Nazi eugenics: Hans Asperger conducted his research on autistic children in Austria during World War II. His work was funded by the Nazi Party. Asperger labeled certain “high functioning” autistic children as having “Asperger’s syndrome,” deeming them worthy of living. However, he allowed other autistic children to be killed under the Nazi euthanasia program.

No clear distinctions: There was too much overlap between Asperger’s syndrome and other types of autism. The line between Asperger’s, high functioning autism, and other autism diagnoses was too blurry.

Promoted stigma: The Asperger’s label promoted stigma against more “severe” forms of autism. It also minimized the struggles that higher functioning individuals face.

Rejected by the autism community: Many autistic individuals reject functioning labels like Asperger’s. They prefer identity-first language such as “autistic person” rather than “person with Asperger’s.”

Due to this complex history, the Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis faded away. Today, autism is recognized as a spectrum disorder with no clear lines between “high” and “low” functioning. Every autistic person has unique strengths and challenges.

How ABA Therapy Helps Those with High Functioning Autism

While high functioning autism is a problematic term, it’s important to recognize that higher functioning individuals do often require specialized support. Their intelligence and language skills may mask underlying challenges. A key way to help is through applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy.

What is ABA Therapy?

ABA therapy is a customized, evidence-based approach to teaching communication, social, self-care, academic, and life skills to autistic children and adults. It focuses on:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Breaking skills into manageable steps
  • Motivating clients to learn
  • Generalizing skills across environments
  • Reducing problematic behaviors
  • Collecting data to track progress

ABA can take place one-on-one in the home and clinic. It can also occur in group settings like schools and community programs. The interventions are tailored to each client’s unique needs, challenges, interests, and goals.

Benefits for High Functioning Individuals

Here are some of the main benefits of ABA therapy for higher functioning autistic children and adults:

  • Improve social skills: ABA builds critical social skills like making eye contact, reading body language, initiating conversations, turn taking, sharing interests, and developing friendships.
  • Enhance communication: From nonverbal to verbal skills, ABA develops appropriate and effective communication.
  • Reduce anxiety: Anxiety is common with HFA. ABA teaches coping strategies to reduce anxiety around social situations, transitions, sensory triggers, and more.
  • Build executive functioning: ABA targets executive function skills like organization, planning, time management, decision making, and emotional control.
  • Increase independence: Functional life skills training via ABA boosts independent functioning with hygiene, household chores, community access, transportation, and more.
  • Improve focus: For those who struggle with attention, ABA uses reinforcement, visual supports, and structure to improve focus and task completion.
  • Decrease problematic behaviors: ABA can reduce behaviors like obsessive interests, emotional meltdowns, eloping, and self-injury.
  • Generalize skills: A core ABA technique is transferring skills learned in therapy to other environments like school and work.
  • Customization: ABA programs are completely tailored to each individual’s unique support needs.

Getting Started with ABA Therapy

If you or a loved one could benefit from ABA therapy:

  • Get an evaluation: A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) can conduct an evaluation to identify which ABA interventions will help most.
  • Create a treatment plan: The BCBA will develop a comprehensive ABA treatment plan based on strengths, challenges, and goals.
  • Implement an ABA program: ABA therapy is carried out by trained therapists and practitioners under the guidance of the BCBA.
  • Track progress: Data collection and analysis allows the treatment team to see which ABA tactics work and what needs adjusting.
  • Modify the plan: ABA programs are constantly updated based on the individual’s progress and evolving needs.
  • Transition as needed: ABA can be faded out as skills develop, or shifted to target new challenges as they arise.

ABA therapy has decades of research demonstrating its effectiveness for autistic individuals across the spectrum, including higher-functioning children and adults. It can turn struggles into strengths and unlock every individual’s full potential, no matter where they fall on the spectrum.

Get Started with In-Home ABA Therapy in Maryland

If you are located in Maryland and seeking ABA therapy for an autistic loved one, Jade ABA Therapy has you covered.

Jade ABA Therapy

  • In-home services: We come to you and provide one-on-one ABA in the comfort of your home.
  • Highly trained BCBAs and therapists: Our team has years of experience providing top-quality, compassionate ABA therapy.
  • Fully customized programs: Each ABA program is tailored to your child or adult’s unique needs and goals.
  • Ongoing support: We partner with you throughout your ABA journey to achieve the best outcomes.
  • Maryland-based: We serve families across Maryland who need ABA.

Get Started Today

Call Jade ABA Therapy at (410) 616-0901 or email info@jadeaba.org to get started with in-home ABA therapy that will help your child or adult thrive. We are dedicated to providing the best possible ABA services to unlock every individual’s potential.

The Takeaway on High Functioning Autism

While the terminology is controversial, many autistic individuals do require less intensive support while still facing substantial challenges. The outdated Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis has appropriately faded away. What’s left is recognizing each autistic person’s unique strengths and struggles. ABA therapy is the leading way to equip higher functioning children and adults with the skills they need to thrive at home, school, work, and in the community. With an appropriately tailored ABA program, every autistic individual can reach their full potential.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

Chen, J. L., Leader, G., Sung, C., & Leahy, M. (2015). Trends in employment for individuals with autism spectrum disorder: a review of the research literature. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2(2), 115-127. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-014-0041-6

Neggers, Y. H. (2014). Increasing prevalence, changes in diagnostic criteria, and nutritional risk factors for autism spectrum disorders. ISRN Nutrition, 2014, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/514026

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