Understanding High Functioning Autism in Children

Although they may vary slightly from person to person, children with High Functioning Autism (HFA) end to have similar symptoms, the main ones being:

  • A need to know when everything is happening in order not to feel completely overwhelmed
  • A rigid insistence on routine (where any change can cause an emotional and physiological meltdown)
  • Difficulties with social functioning, particularly in the rough and tumble of a school environment
  • Obsessive interests, with a focus on one subject to the exclusion of all others
  • Sensory issues, where they are oversensitive to bright light, loud sounds and unpleasant smells
  • Social isolation and struggles to make friends due to a lack of empathy, and an inability to pick up on or understand social graces and cues (such as stopping talking and allowing others to speak)

TIPS FOR ADULTS WHO WANT TO BETTER UNDERSTAND HFA

  1. “Typical" children and those with HFA may have very different ways of communicating their feeling about life events, including: managing emotions, learning from life events, incorporating rituals and traditions for managing life events, dealing with dying and death, and coping with illness, injury or recuperation. Just because children may process and communicate their feelings differently, though, doesn't mean it's right or wrong. It is best to be honest and literal to help these children to manage major life events. Provide information and allow them time to process it.
  2. A child with HFA may have difficulty understanding clichés or expressions and interpret a phrase literally. By speaking directly and factually, like saying "It's easy" as compared to "It's a piece of cake", the child is more likely to understand the line.
  3. HFA children have difficulty with transitions. So, don’t surprise them – let them know your plans.
  4. Body language, facial expressions, gestures, and turning away from someone may be cues that are missed by an HFA child. When this happens, it is another opportunity for parents to be direct and factual, realizing that their body language or social cues may not be picked up by their child.
  5. Children with HFA can manage situations by being aware of what they're feeling and thinking and expressing their thoughts to important adults in their life. Being aware of when they need help - and asking for it - is a good skill to have.
  6. Children with HFA take in information from their five senses as do “typical” children. The difference is that HFA kids are not able to process it as quickly and can become overwhelmed by the amount of information that they are receiving. As a result, they may withdraw as a coping mechanism.
  7. Due to the break of routine with family vacations, many parents of HFA children may avoid taking vacations. Steps can be taken to help make for a successful family vacation. One is sharing information with the child, like pictures or internet web pages. There are organizations that will make accommodations, if requested, to better manage uncertainty, crowds, and noise disruption. This includes theme parks who allow “special needs” children to skip long lines and airlines or airports that may allow for a dry-run prior to the trip. Also, prepare prior to the trip so that there is a plan for managing boredom.
  8. Many children with an autism spectrum disorder are hypersensitive to changes in sight, touch, smell, taste and sound. The sensory stimulus can be very distracting and can result in pain or anxiety. There are other autistic children who are hyposensitive and may not feel extreme changes in temperature or pain. Each of these has implications for making an autism-friendly environment.
  9. Since change of routine can be quite anxiety-producing for many HFA children, a structured, predictable routine makes for calmer and happier transitions during the day.
  10. Social stories have been a great method to communicate ways in which my HFA child can prepare herself for social interaction.
  11. Talking about - or engaging in - activities that the HFA child cares about is a great way to bond with him or her.
  12. When you find out that an HFA child may not be able to look you in the eyes, realize that he or she is not trying to be rude. It’s simply uncomfortable for some of these children to do

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