How to Explain Your Child's High-Functioning Autism

Mild autism often requires an explanation

High-functioning autism (HFA) can be tricky to explain to others, as symptoms may not be as obvious as it is in children on the more severe end of the autism spectrum.

All people with autism have problems with social communication and also tend to engage in repetitive, restricted behaviors. Those with HFA—formerly known as Asperger's syndrome, and sometimes known as "mild autism"—tend to be intelligent and capable as well. Hence, it may not always be obvious to people in your child's life that they aren't neurotypical. If people do notice certain behaviors in your child, and don't understand what's causing them, they may just think your child is "odd," which can be hurtful.

Because there is no agreed-upon definition of high-functioning autism, it can be very tough to explain the disorder in a simple way. You may wonder if it's in your child's best interest to disclose their high-functioning autism, or if it's better not to.

In May 2013, Asperger's syndrome was removed from the diagnostic literature. People who were once diagnosed with Asperger's now receive a "Level 1" autism spectrum diagnosis, informally known as high-functioning or mild autism.

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Why High-Functioning Autism Is Confusing

People with high-functioning autism often appear neurotypical in certain situations, but not in others. Repetitive talking, pacing, or rocking can be calming for a child with mild autism, but confusing or upsetting to people who don't know about or understand it.

Here are a few examples of what HFA can look like:

  • A bright, articulate child collapses in tears because his bus is late.
  • A good student fails to complete a test because it's in a different location from the one they expected.
  • A college student is unable to attend lectures because the lights in the room are too bright.
  • An employee "stalks" an office mate because they don't understand their subtle attempts to say "I'm not interested."
  • A teenager, invited to an informal event with their peers, comes dressed in a suit and tie.

It can be very surprising and unsettling to see these behaviors that seem to come from out of the blue. In fact, many people who aren't aware of someone's autism may be insulted or angry, thinking that the behavior is intentional.

While many people would argue that autism should always be disclosed, there are reasons why someone would choose not to do so. For example, some teachers, professors, and employers have anxieties about interacting with people who have developmental differences; thus, a disclosure could have a negative impact on interactions, grades, and evaluations. In addition, children with HFA may be denied the opportunity to be part of a general peer group and instead put into "autism-only" settings.

Telling Your Child About Their Diagnosis

Many children with high-functioning autism are included in mainstream classes and can handle a wide range of typical activities. Some parents worry that by telling a child about their diagnosis, they're opening the door to trouble. Might the child lean on the diagnosis when challenges appear? Might their self-esteem suffer when they hear they have a diagnosable difference?

There's no one right answer. Knowing they have a diagnosis may make a child feel like there is something "wrong" with them or feel stigmatized. On the other hand, children generally know that they are different and may feel relieved to be able to put a name to their challenges and seek out settings where they'll have a sense of belonging.

Children with autism are diagnosed at different ages ranging from toddlerhood to adolescence, so the discussion will likely be impacted by the age of the child. Both a child’s age and developmental level should be factors when thinking about disclosing the child’s diagnosis and considering how to share this information.

Disclosing Your Child's Autism to Others

There's always the possibility that a coach, club leader, or other adult will have reservations about including a child with a disability; many adults have very little experience with autism and may feel they can't offer appropriate support. Should a parent explain their child's autism up front? Or should they take a wait-and-see approach?

One approach is a "partial disclosure." For example, if a child is taking part in a karate class, they may do well most of the time but react strongly if there's a change in the routine. In that case, it might be useful to explain to the instructor that they might need to warn the child before class about any changes. In this way, you are addressing the issue without revealing the diagnosis.

If you choose to reveal your child's diagnosis, make sure to point out that, like all people, they have strengths and challenges. (Use the word "challenges" instead of "weaknesses," because challenges are things you can address.) Then talk about the accommodations and types of support that can be implemented to help your child succeed and even thrive.

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