Treatment of High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder in Adults

Having high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) means that you have mild autism symptoms and require the least amount of support for daily living compared to others with more severe cases. It's because of this that high-functioning autism is sometimes only diagnosed later in life—long after someone has learned to cope with the challenges of autism.

Since you've likely been managing the effects of your autism on your own, treatment may seem unnecessary. But regardless of whether you were diagnosed with autism in childhood or later on, treatment for high functioning autism can help you better manage your disorder. If you feel your condition is impacting your quality of life, it may be time to speak to your doctor.

This article will help you learn more about mild autism in adults. It discusses some of the symptoms, as well as treatments that may help adults who have autism.

adult autism spectrum disorder treatment
Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Impact of High-Functioning Autism

The clinical manual doctors use to diagnose autism and other mental health conditions is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The most recent version, the DSM-5, describes three levels of autism which are defined as ASD functional levels. It also explains support and services typically required, depending on the severity of symptoms.

Level 1, or high-functioning autism, involves mild symptoms and describes people who need the least support for their condition.

Symptoms of level 1 autism include:

Some adults with milder forms of autism are also likely to be focused on a specific area of interest than people who have more severe forms. However, if they do have a focused area of interest, they may have a hard time engaging with others outside of that interest.

Treatment is designed around the symptoms that are impacting your day-to-day life. This can differ from person to person.

Goals of Treatment

Autism isn't a disease, and it does not get worse with time as some illnesses do.

There is neither a physical nor ethical reason to do anything about it. It's only when the symptoms affect your quality of life—your health, job, relationships, and so on—that treatment may be a good option.

A treatment program is not meant to "cure" your autism. Rather, it's meant to give you a framework to better understand both your strengths and your challenges.

Goals for an adult with level 1 autism might include:

  • Building self-control
  • Controlling emotions
  • Being flexible
  • Improving communications skills
  • Understanding non-verbal cues
  • Reducing anxiety

Seeking treatment also may connect you with a world of professionals and support groups who know the challenges of living with autism.

Treatment often involves dealing with family issues. This may help with repairing rifts in which family members no longer talk. A lack of knowledge about mild autism and its dynamics may actually be at the root of some of these conflicts.

In some cases, families become stronger when members work together to better understand and live with autism.

Forms of Treatment

Children with any level of autism usually receive some type of treatment in school. Typically, that means physical, occupational, and speech therapy. It usually comes along with some type of social skills training and behavior support.

If children have problems with sensory input, their parents might also sign them up for sensory integration therapy. This helps children to deal with sights, sounds, and other stimuli.

As they get older, they might get involved with social skills groups and cognitive therapy.

Some of these therapies can be appropriate for you as an adult too, although you may need to seek some of them in different settings. Exactly what's involved in treatment really depends on how your mild autism is impacting your life.

A treatment plan may involve applied behavior analysis (ABA). This is an evidence-based approach to managing mild autism through positive reinforcement of desired behaviors.

Medication

Sometimes medication also is an option for controlling certain symptoms.

Prescriptions may include:

  • Antidepressants: Some of these drugs may be given to help with repetitive behaviors, or to better manage emotions like anger or anxiety.
  • Stimulants: These drugs may help reduce hyperactivity and improve focus and attention.
  • Anti-anxiety drugs: These may help with certain anxiety disorders commonly seen in people with an autism spectrum disorder.

Unapproved Therapies

Beware of false claims made about treating autism in both adults and children. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has urged people to avoid some of these claims, including:

  • Chelation therapies: These products claim to "cure" autism symptoms by removing toxins in the body. Chelation products are sold as sprays, capsules, liquid drops, and clay baths.
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: This involves breathing oxygen under pressure in a special hyperbaric chamber. It is used to treat some conditions like carbon monoxide poisoning, but it is not approved for autism.
  • Essential oils: These and other products, like raw camel's milk, are not FDA-approved.

Recap

Treatment for adult high-functioning autism involves therapy, which helps people gain the skills and strategies needed to better manage the condition. Sometimes, drugs may be prescribed as part of an overall treatment plan. Seeking care may also lead to better access to services for people with autism.

Services and Support

Though high-functioning autism, by definition, requires a low level of support overall, some people with level 1 autism may need more support than others. This depends on the specific challenges they face.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures reasonable accommodation at school or work for some high-functioning adults with an ASD diagnosis. Beyond that, the benefits may be limited. Still, an adult with ASD can ask a healthcare provider to write a report that clearly outlines their autism diagnosis and any associated functional challenges.

With this written diagnosis, adults with autism may be eligible for state and federal services. In some cases, that may include help with health insurance, housing, and job training and placement.

Along with professional help, many adults with mild autism benefit from their own ability to gather information about ASD and employ strategies they learn. They may seek information from books, support groups, or conferences that share insights and ideas about life on the autism spectrum.

This may be especially important if you have a new diagnosis as an adult. You may feel your ASD is overlooked. Those around you may assume you are neurotypical. It may help you and your family to connect with others who share your autism experience.

The Global and Regional Partnership for Asperger Syndrome (GRASP) offers a whole page of links to sites and resources to support adults with AS seeking ideas, insights, and next steps.

Summary

People are much more aware of autism spectrum disorder than they once were. In some cases, that means adults find out they have autism later in life. Once you know the symptoms and have a diagnosis, help is available.

If you have autism, treatment may not be necessary, but it is possible. This usually means some form of therapy with a healthcare provider. It also may include medication. There are many resources that can help improve the quality of life for adults with autism, so be sure to find out what's available.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institutes of Health. Medication Treatment for Autism.

  3. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Be Aware of Potentially Dangerous Products and Therapies That Claim to Treat Autism.

  4. Shattuck PT, Roux AM, Hudson LE, Taylor JL, Maenner MJ, Trani J-F. Services for Adults with an Autism Spectrum DisorderThe Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 2012;57(5):284-291. doi:10.1177/070674371205700503

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