Making Sense of High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Think back to the days of grade school. Can you remember one or two peers (probably male) who were a bit different from the other children? Maybe they exhibited some of the following ‘strange’ behaviors:
  • They always stood too close to you
  • They constantly wiggled and rocked while sitting at their desks
  • They made odd, distracting noises
  • They never looked anyone in the eye
  • They never raised their hands
  • They never seemed to have any friends
  • They talked on and on about favorite subjects
  • They waved their hands and knew all the answers
  • They were noisier than the others
  • They were often teased, chased, shoved, tripped, called names and bullied

Do you remember anybody like that? These kids probably had Asperger's (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), but no one knew much about it then. To help make sense of the disorder, we will need to look at the deficits associated with it.

Here are the three core deficits:

1. Theory of mind deficit: an inability to recognize that other people have thoughts, feelings and intentions that are different to one's own, and an inability to intuitively guess what these might be.


A theory of mind is the cognitive or 'mind reading' process, or ability that we all individually have in order to make sense of the world we live in. Every individual's thoughts, knowledge, beliefs and desires make up his own unique theory of mind. From the age of around 4 years, kids understand that other people have thoughts, knowledge, beliefs and desires that will influence their behavior. However, children with HFA and AS appear to have some difficulties conceptualizing and appreciating the thoughts and feelings of others. It is this 'mind-blindness' that may impair Aspergers children to be able to relate to and understand the behaviors of others. Mind-blindness also means the child has difficulty in distinguishing whether someone's actions are intentional or accidental.

Theory of Mind establishes that children on the spectrum have difficulty considering the perspective of others, such as their emotions, motives and intents. By failing to account for other’s perspectives, children with the disorder tend to misinterpret their messages. They also tend to talk at length about their own topic of interest because of their difficulty monitoring and responding to the social cues/social needs of others. Many of the social skill deficits observed in children on the autism spectrum may have their genesis in the lack of ability to decipher subtle meaning from the environment. In other words, these children have a “global processing” deficit.

2. Weak central coherence: an inability to bring together various details from perception to make a meaningful whole.


Central coherence is the ability to focus on both details as well as wholes. Children with AS and HFA, however, appear to have a heightened focus on details rather than wholes, a cognitive style termed 'weak central coherence'. This is the reason why some of these "special needs" kids have hypersensitive sensory perceptions. This inability to understand ‘wholes’ resides in the frontal cortex of the brain, which in turn also explains theory of mind deficits. The inability to hold information in mind in order to use it later in other tasks is what causes the child to lack central coherence.

Central Coherence Theory speaks to the fact that most children on the autism spectrum are weak in their ability to conceptualize whole chunks of information; they demonstrate a preference for attending to details and relying on their rote memories to make sense of the ever-changing world around them. A lack of cognitive central coherence, or gestalt processing, can easily cause the child to miss the importance of the subtle cues that create meaning in a social context including the difficulty of intuitively understanding the main idea of a conversation or a passage in literature.

3. Executive dysfunction: impairment or deficits in the higher-order processes that enable us to plan, sequence, initiate, and sustain our behavior towards some goal, incorporating feedback and making adjustments along the way.


Executive function can be defined as the way in which people monitor and control their thoughts and actions. Executive function is actually a broad category that includes such processes like working memory, planning, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Inhibitory control is one aspect of executive function that is particularly relevant to language development. Inhibitory control is the ability to restrain (or inhibit) potentially interfering responses and to self-regulate in certain situations. If we break down the skills or functions into sub-functions, we might say that executive functions tap into the following abilities or skills:

1. Goal
2. Plan
3. Sequence
4. Prioritize
5. Organize
6. Initiate
7. Inhibit
8. Pace
9. Shift
10. self-monitor
11. Emotional control
12. Completing

Executive Dysfunction acknowledges that children on the autistic spectrum are weak in their ability to orchestrate tasks towards a desired outcome. Executive functioning does not have one definition agreed on by researchers, however, it is generally considered to describe the set of skills an executive would need to stay on top of his/her job (e.g., planning, organizing, prioritizing, multi-tasking, etc.). Executive dysfunction may make it difficult to maintain a topic in a conversation as the AS or HFA child has difficulty maintaining a sense of order in his spoken messages often producing tangential responses. She may also have difficulty with the organization of written expression or independently planning to complete class assignments.


1. A child with the disorder often gets "stuck" and has difficulty moving from one activity to another. He may need to be coached through the transition, and if a typical day is loaded with lots of transitions, the child faces increased anxiety. Some possible strategies a teacher, paraprofessional, or parent can use includes: visual schedules, role-playing, or preparing the child by discussing upcoming activities.

2. These children are often distracted by something in the environment that they cannot control (e.g., the tic of a clock, a breeze from an open window, the smell of food from the cafeteria, the bright sunshine pouring through the windows). This sensory overload may overwhelm them, so focusing can be difficult and frustration can occur. Thus, making the environment less distracting (when possible) can be very helpful to the child.

3. These children are visual learners. Much of the information presented in classrooms is oral, and often children on the spectrum have difficulty with processing language. Often they cannot take in oral language quickly, and presenting information visually may be more helpful.

4. Assess the child's current skills and needs in order to be able to develop the most appropriate intervention plan.

5. Be aware of any possible distractions that will affect the child's performance (e.g., whether acoustic, visual, physical etc.).

6. Follow the activities in a consistent manner in order to limit any possible confusion or distress.

7. Keep instructions simple and clear.

8. Many children on the spectrum are "hands-on" learners.

9. Provide the child tasks that she finds easy and enjoyable, and then to gradually work on increasing the level of those tasks.

10. Remember that each child with the disorder is unique, and strategies that have worked with other children in the past may not work effectively with the AS or HFA child since he perceives the world in a unique way and sometimes reacts to the environment in unpredictable ways.

11. Remember the child on the autism spectrum may experience difficulty with communication, especially nonverbal communication. What appears to the teacher to be behavior illustrating a lack of attention on the part of the child may not be that at all. In fact, the AS or HFA child who is doodling or staring off may actually be trying to focus him or herself through the act of doodling or staring.

12. Remember to keep a structured timetable.

13. Sometimes children on the spectrum focus all their attention on a particular object or subject; therefore, they fail to focus on what information the instructor is presenting. All their energy is directed toward a particular subject or object. To overcome this problem, the parent or teacher can try to establish some connection between the object or subject of interest and the area of study.

14. Take time to evaluate the classroom in terms of sensory stimulation and how the environment affects the child with the disorder. Perhaps some modifications can be made, or the child can be taught some coping skills that are not disruptive to classmates (e.g., squeezing a squishy ball).

15. The AS or HFA child experiences difficulty with eye contact. Limited eye contact is a part of the disability. Don't demand the child to look you in the eye as you are talking to him.  

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


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