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How to Identify High-Functioning Autism in a Preschooler

Identifying High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s in young people who have the disorder can be difficult because they are relatively skilled in most areas (e.g., many have a high level of language development and an average to high IQ). But, parents may be able to recognize HFA in a preschooler by watching his or her social interactions and behaviors.

Although parents may recognize some telltale signs of HFA in their preschooler, ultimately they need the professional discernment of a physician or other qualified professional. The physician may recommend tests to more thoroughly examine relevant potentially telling aspects of a preschooler's social and cognitive development. However, there is no single medical test to diagnose HFA, so parents should be patient as they and their child’s physician work through the diagnosis process.

Have you wondered whether or not your child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder? If so, here’s what to look for to confirm your suspicions (if you answer “yes” to most of these questions, then seeking a formal diagnosis would be the next step):
  1. Can your HFA child follow the lead of a close friend or sibling with “role-playing,” yet doesn't do it on his own?
  2. Does your child appear to be clumsy or awkward in her movements? 
  3. Does your child appear to have difficulty reading and interpreting others' feelings in real social interactions?
  4. Does your child commonly show repetitive motor behaviors (e.g., persistent hand twisting or finger tapping, whole-body movements, etc.)?
  5. Does your child have great difficulty adapting to change?
  6. Would you say your child has great difficulty deviating from his routine?
  7. Does your child have great difficulty interacting with her same-age peers, yet does well socially with those older or younger than her?
  8. Does your child prefer adults for conversation over another youngster his age?
  9. Does your child prefer games with a set script (e.g., acting out a favorite story or TV show)?
  10. Does your child prefer highly-structured days and consistent rules?
  11. Have you noticed that your child has difficulty interacting with others in group-play?
  12. Does your child seem to have disregard for other's feelings (e.g., appears to be insensitive)?
  13. Does your child tend to misinterpret simple social cues (e.g., turn-taking during conversation or games)?
  14. Does your youngster only initiate questions on topics that interest him?
  15. Has your child become distressed if you get in her way (e.g. passing in front of her while she is trying to walk in circles around a table)?
  16. Has your child demonstrated difficulty in some motor skills (e.g., catching and throwing a ball, riding a bicycle, tying shoe laces, etc.)?
  17. Does your child enjoy creating fantasy worlds, yet struggles with social role-play?
  18. Does your child have a passionate “special interest” to the exclusion of all other potential interests?
  19. Does your child have difficulty with imaginative play (e.g., he dislikes or struggles to understand social games)? 
  20. Has your child tried to impose her choice of game on her playmates or otherwise act in a very one-sided manner?
  21. Have you noticed that your HFA child is highly skilled at language and very verbal (e.g., she may list off every item in a room)?
  22. Is it rare that your child responds to social interaction with a smile of happy emotional expression?
  23. Would you say that the social context in which language is used is often abnormal (e.g., words may be repeated but not understood)?
  24. Would you say your child is a "walking encyclopedia" on a given topic?
  25. Does your child have trouble joining or staying in social interactions (e.g., he may leave the room in the middle of playing with another youngster or otherwise be disruptive)? 
  26. Does your child have trouble understanding social boundaries (e.g., the need for privacy or personal space)?
  27. Would you say your child seems to be lost "in his own world"?
  28. Would you say your child speaks in a monotonous or idiosyncratic fashion (e.g., has a flat tone, an odd or high tone, stresses words and the rhythm of speech, speaks in a singsong or otherwise unusual tone, etc.)?
  29. Does your child tend to prefer playing by himself – and even gets upset if another youngster approaches him?
  30. Does your child’s speech seem overly formal or scripted (e.g., uses language to relay facts but not to convey thoughts or feelings)?
  31. Would you say your child’s social interactions are awkward (e.g., consistently avoiding eye contact, unusual body posture, gestures, facial expressions, etc.)? 
  32. Does your child have unusual sensory reactions (e.g., abnormal reactions to touch, sight, smell, sound or taste)?
  33. Does your child only interact with others when she wants to talk about her “special interest” or if she needs something?
  34. Does your child organize her stuffed animals into elaborate societies, yet doesn't role-play interactions with them?
  35. Has your child ever been unresponsive to pain, or did not know how to communicate that he was in pain?


If your child exhibits most of the traits listed above, seek the help of a professional. There is no "cure" for HFA, but numerous therapies are available that can help your youngster gain skills and be more comfortable. The goal of treatment is to maximize your youngster's ability to function day-to-day through acquiring coping mechanisms and focusing on learning outcomes.

Some treatment options include the following:
  • Sensory integration therapies (e.g., sensory diet) can improve the youngster's tolerance to sensory input and manage hyperactivity.
  • Medications (e.g., antidepressants or antipsychotics) can be effective in controlling certain HFA-related symptoms (e.g., anxiety, severe behavioral problems, etc.).
  • Family therapies, in which the emphasis is on teaching the child’s parents different ways to interact with her to promote her social and emotional development, can be very helpful.
  • Educational therapies that are highly-structured, “individually-tailored” programs executed by a team of specialists who have expertise in communicating with - and teaching - HFA children are also very helpful.
  • Behavior and communication therapy, in which the goal is either reduce problematic behaviors and communication styles or to improve these areas by teaching new skills, is perhaps the most important therapy of all.

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

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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