What's the Difference Between Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism?

“I'm seriously confused! I have an 8yr old that was recently diagnosed with HFA and has been diagnosed with ADHD since he was 5 1/2yrs old. I've been trying to understand all the diagnoses and changes I've seen in my youngest child, but it's so confusing. Is Asperger Syndrome the same as High Functioning Autism? How are these two different from Autism? Please give me some insight as I'm losing my mind and already suffer from Depression. Thank you, Very concerned mommy.”

Asperger’s (AS), along with other autism disorders, falls along a “spectrum.” This spectrum has been called the autism spectrum. Whatever it is called, Autistic Disorder (or autism) would fall at one end of the spectrum, while “average” or “neurotypical” functioning would be found at the other end. AS has been conceptualized as a mild, less problematic form of autism that falls between average functioning and autism on this continuum.

This means that kids with autism experience many of the same symptoms as those with AS. However, the symptoms of autistic kids are usually more severe, and their functioning is much more impaired (e.g., while a youngster with AS may have difficulty using language socially, a youngster with autism may be mute). Both AS and Autistic Disorders may involve:
  • difficulties interacting with others
  • difficulty using language socially
  • lack of understanding or interest in others' feelings
  • narrow interests or abilities
  • odd motor behaviors
  • poor nonverbal communication skills
  • social rejection
  • rigidity (as opposed to flexibility) in play

Autism is the more severe form of problems with social interaction, restricted behaviors and areas of interest, and impaired language skills (e.g., while a youngster with AS may have difficulty interacting with others socially and forming friendships, a youngster with autism may often avoid direct eye contact with everybody, dislike physical touch including the experience of hugs or loving touches, and may not develop verbal skills).

According to the present diagnostic criteria, children with autism usually experience significant delay in the acquisition of language skills (e.g., the youngster did not use single words before the age of 2; communicative phrases were not used until after age 3). Cognitive skills are also often impaired. On the other hand, children with AS probably did not experience delay or impairment in cognitive or language skills. Also, while children with autism show little interest in peer interaction, children with AS often seek such companionship.

Re: The difference between AS and HFA—

Many children identified as having High-Functioning Autism (HFA) had more pronounced symptoms of autism when they were younger. As they aged, the development of basic social skills, age appropriate cognitive skills, and verbal ability occurred. HFA is a term that was most often used here in the United States and often applies to kids who qualified for a diagnosis of autism when they were younger. Controversy still exists within the literature about the differences between these diagnoses. Some professionals use the terms interchangeably. At this point, the symptoms associated the two labels (AS and HFA) are considered to be mostly identical.

Re: The dual-diagnosis of ADHD and AS—

To complicate matters even more, there is also a significant overlap between the symptoms of ADHD and AS. More on that topic can be found here: The Aspergers-ADHD Overlap

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