As in many areas of life, the last few years have seen people re-evaluate the way they talk about special needs. When it comes to autism, the term ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ is no longer used by health professionals – partly because of its former associations with Nazi Germany.
Although a diagnosis of Asperger’s used to indicate that a person had ASD but no intellectual disability or language delay, many now prefer the term ‘high-functioning autism’.
To make it more confusing, other individuals and organisations don’t agree with using ‘high-functioning’ or ‘low-functioning’ to describe a person’s difficulties at all. “Many autistic people are uncomfortable with these terms as they don’t get across the breadth of the autism spectrum or the diversity of experiences,” says a spokesperson for the National Autistic Society.
“The tricky thing is that there’s not a ‘like for like’ replacement. Instead, we try to talk about the autism spectrum and the varying challenges and strengths people have,” he continues. “For instance, some autistic people have an accompanying learning disability and need extra support to do everyday things like clean, cook or exercise. Others are in full-time work, with just a little extra support.”
High-Functioning Autism and Intellectual Ability
Even so, for people working in education, it’s easy to see how the term ‘high-functioning’ can be helpful as a way of identifying how a student might cope with learning traditional, classroom subjects. The problem is that focusing on this intellectual ability can sometimes divert attention from areas where someone is struggling.
Tutor Alice is a qualified teacher and former SENCO who is currently studying to become a child psychotherapist. She says that pupils with high-functioning autism can sometimes ‘slip under the radar’ at school. “If they’re coping well with their studies, their difficulties might be less-obvious,” she comments. “This could mean, for example, that the school is less likely to pay for an Educational Psychologist or offer extra help because everyone assumes the child is managing.
“However, if you look more closely, you might notice their social skills aren’t too good or they have difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives,” she continues. “Maybe they’re masking at school but the family is seeing difficult behaviour at home. They still need help.”
Alice says that people who have gone through the school system in this way only to receive a diagnosis of ASD as an adult often feel a sense of relief when they finally find out they’re autistic. “They say they’ve gone through life feeling ‘different’ or ‘wrong’ but not knowing why,” she explains. “Once they understand what their difficulties are, they can learn ways to help themselves.”
People With Autism Can be More Able than Others Realise
In the same way, very obvious problems with communication can also sometimes mask academic ability, she continues. “I worked with one young girl, for instance, who had autism and was exceptional at maths. Her teachers were so focused on helping her social skills and her behavioural challenges that they didn’t realise what she could achieve. They were setting her exercises four years below her capabilities and unsurprisingly, she was bored and didn’t want to participate in lessons.”
Even so, Alice suggests that people with high-functioning autism don’t necessarily have an exceptional talent, and if they do have a special interest it isn’t always what they are academically best at, despite what the public may believe. “In my experience, a child with high functioning autism may know a lot about something, and feel relaxed and at ease when reseaching and talking about it, while not being recgonised as ‘gifted’,” she comments. “I know that there’s a general perception that kids with high-functioning autism tend to be very good at maths or science, and perhaps there’s some truth in that, but it hasn’t been my own experience.”
However, it’s vitally important, she emphasises, to point out a young person’s strengths, whatever they may be, in order to boost their morale and give them a positive view of themselves.
Tutoring Can Help With Other Skills
Although a high-functioning student may be very able academically, they can still benefit from the help of a private tutor, Alice maintains. Anxiety is a big impediment for most kids with autism and working one-to-one in a calm environment with someone they trust, she says, can help them to learn and make progress without being overloaded by the noise and distraction of a busy classroom. Tutors can also help with study skills and social skills, taking a child’s sensory needs into account.