February 20, 2024
Mom and two children cheering

High-Functioning vs Low-Functioning Autism: What’s the Difference?

Posted February 20, 2024

What is Autism?


Autism is a neurological condition that affects how a person perceives and interacts with the world around them. It’s not a disease or something that can be cured, but rather a unique way of being. Individuals with autism often have differences in communication, social interaction, and sensory processing. Some may excel in certain areas, like problem-solving or creative thinking, while facing challenges in others. Autism is a spectrum, which means there’s a wide range of abilities and characteristics within the autistic community. Learning to recognize and respect the diverse experiences and perspectives of individuals with autism, promoting understanding, acceptance, and support for their unique strengths and challenges is essential to understanding people with autism.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, doctors and scientists usually categorize autism into different levels. In this article we’ll focus on high-functioning and low-functioning autism and the main differences between the two.


High-Functioning Autism and Symptoms


High-functioning autism is a term often used to describe individuals who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and exhibit relatively mild symptoms or higher levels of functioning compared to others on the autism spectrum. “High-functioning” is not an official medical diagnosis, but rather a descriptive term used in informal contexts.

The symptoms of high-functioning autism are similar to those of autism spectrum disorder in general, but individuals with high-functioning autism typically have fewer challenges in certain areas, such as language and intellectual abilities. Some common symptoms and characteristics of high-functioning autism may include:


Social Difficulties

People with high-functioning autism often struggle with social interactions, including difficulty understanding nonverbal cues, maintaining eye contact, and engaging in reciprocal conversations. They may have trouble interpreting social situations and understanding social norms.

Restricted Interests

Individuals with high-functioning autism may develop intense and narrow interests in specific topics. They may spend a significant amount of time learning and talking about these interests, sometimes to the exclusion of other activities.

Repetitive Behaviors

Like other individuals with ASD, those with high-functioning autism may engage in repetitive behaviors or rituals. These can include repetitive movements, insistence on sameness or routine, and a need for predictability in their environment.

Sensory Sensitivities

People with high-functioning autism may have heightened sensitivities or difficulties processing sensory information. They may be overly sensitive to sounds, lights, textures, or tastes, which can lead to sensory overload or meltdowns in certain situations.

Challenges With Executive Functioning

Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive processes that help individuals plan, organize, and execute tasks. Individuals with high-functioning autism may have difficulties with executive functioning, which can affect their ability to manage time, set goals, and initiate and complete tasks.

Communication Differences

While individuals with high-functioning autism typically have well-developed language skills, they may still struggle with communication. They may have difficulty with pragmatic language skills, such as understanding sarcasm, humor, or implied meaning. Some individuals may have a monotone voice or speak in a formal, robotic manner.


Kids On The Move: A Resource for Those With Autism

Kids On The Move is a non-profit organization that provides support to children with autism. We offer a variety of programs and services to help children develop social skills, improve communication, and reduce anxiety. We provide a safe and supportive environment where children can participate in a range of activities, such as art, music, and sports, while also receiving specialized support from trained professionals.

Kids On The Move also provides therapy services, parent education, and community outreach programs to help families and communities better understand and support children with autism. Our efforts are aimed at promoting the well-being and inclusion of children on all levels of the autism spectrum and helping them thrive in all areas of their lives.


Low-Functioning Autism and Symptoms


Low-functioning autism, also known as severe autism or Level 3 autism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is a term used to describe individuals who have significant impairments in multiple areas of development and functioning.

The symptoms of low-functioning autism can vary from person to person, but generally include:


Communication Difficulties

Limited or absent speech is common in individuals with low-functioning autism. They may have trouble expressing their needs or thoughts verbally or non-verbally.

Social Interaction Challenges

People with low-functioning autism often struggle with social skills and find it difficult to initiate or sustain social interactions. They may have trouble understanding and responding to social cues or have difficulty forming meaningful relationships.

Repetitive Behaviors and Restricted Interests

Individuals with low-functioning autism may engage in repetitive and stereotyped behaviors, such as hand-flapping, rocking, or repetitive vocalizations. They may also have intense interests in specific topics and struggle with changes in routines.

Intellectual and Cognitive Impairments

Low-functioning autism is typically associated with intellectual disability, with varying degrees of severity. Cognitive impairments can affect learning, problem-solving, and adaptive skills necessary for daily living.

Sensory Sensitivities

Many individuals with low-functioning autism experience sensory sensitivities or differences. They may be over- or under-responsive to sensory stimuli, such as sounds, lights, textures, or smells.


Differences Between High-Functioning vs Low-Functioning Autism


When discussing the differences between high-functioning autism (HFA) and low-functioning autism (LFA), it’s essential to recognize that autism is a spectrum disorder, and individuals with autism can have a wide range of abilities and challenges. However, here are some general differences that are often observed:


Communication and Language Abilities

People with HFA typically have better-developed language skills compared to those with LFA. While they may still face challenges in social communication and understanding nuances, individuals with HFA usually have functional speech and can express their needs and thoughts. In contrast, those with LFA may have limited or no speech and may rely on alternative forms of communication such as gestures, signs, or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices.

Cognitive Abilities 

HFA is often associated with average to above-average intellectual abilities. Individuals with HFA may exhibit specific areas of strength or talent, such as exceptional memory or intense interests in specific subjects. On the other hand, LFA is typically associated with intellectual disability, and individuals may have significant cognitive impairments across various domains.

Social Interaction and Relationships

While individuals with both HFA and LFA can struggle with social interactions, the nature and extent of these challenges can differ. Those with HFA often desire social connections and friendships but may struggle with understanding social cues, nonverbal communication, and reciprocal conversation. In contrast, individuals with LFA may have more severe difficulties initiating and sustaining social interactions, and they may demonstrate limited interest in socializing or forming relationships.

Independence and Daily Living Skills

People with HFA generally have greater potential for independence and acquiring daily living skills. They may be able to live independently or with minimal support, manage their self-care, and pursue education or employment. Individuals with LFA may require significant support throughout their lives, including assistance with personal care, vocational training, and structured environments.

Behavioral and Sensory Challenges

Both HFA and LFA can involve repetitive behaviors and sensory sensitivities. However, the specific nature and intensity of these challenges can vary. People with HFA may engage in repetitive or ritualistic behaviors, but they may be better able to control or suppress them in certain situations. In contrast, individuals with LFA may exhibit more pronounced and less flexible repetitive behaviors and have more severe sensory sensitivities.




These differences are generalizations, and individual experiences can vary greatly. Autism is a complex and diverse condition, and each person’s strengths, challenges, and support needs should be considered on an individual basis. Because autism is a spectrum, someone can experience a range of symptoms not outlined in this article and still be diagnosed with autism.

Learning how to recognize the symptoms of high-functioning and low-functioning autism can help you know how to best cope with the diagnosis for yourself or your child.