What is high-functioning autism? How ABA therapy helps build skills for success
What is high-functioning autism, what does it look like and how do people with ASD achieve better life outcomes? These are questions many parents of a child with autism will be asking themselves. There is no official diagnosis for ‘high-functioning autism,’ but as a general rule, this term is used to describe people with autism spectrum disorder who can read and write, communicate and engage in many common aspects of everyday life, from getting dressed to grocery shopping to even holding a job. ABA therapy is often a great method of helping people develop these skills.
For people with ASD, knowing how to respond in conversation, shopping or booking an appointment – seemingly simple, everyday social and environmental situations – can prove a real challenge for adults with autism. Illuminate’s program of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is designed to give young people with autism the tools they need to deal with these common tasks so they can find success and independence as they move from childhood into adulthood.
ABA therapy exists to increase positive behaviors, develop skills through repetition and practicing life tasks while decreasing negative behaviors and addressing triggers. The goal of the therapy is to identify what clients need to be successful and independent.
Here we’ll share some insights into what age clients can start getting ABA therapy and some of the common outcomes clients and their families can expect for the future.
How does ABA therapy help prepare children for adulthood?
ABA therapy works predominantly with children but can be applied at any age. It aims to overcome many of the issues that clients face as they progress from childhood into adulthood. As every client’s needs are different, ABA therapists will adjust and fine-tune their treatment accordingly.
The process starts with an assessment that includes exploring the client’s direct skills, interviewing caregivers, teachers and parents. That information is used to identify where the therapy will initially focus, and what ABA programs will be used. For example, therapy may start with improving the client’s ability to stay seated or participate in reading time.
What is high-functioning autism?
High-functioning autism is an informal term referring to someone with ASD who is able to build skills and strategies for navigating everyday life situations. An ABA therapy plan aims to help people with ASD develop these skills so that they reach better life outcomes of autism.
Illuminate therapists use a variety of techniques to identify the unique challenges each client faces. Through assessment, therapists can construct bespoke goals for clients. For example, if there are barriers to learning such as whining, crying, tantrums or other negative behaviors, these can be addressed at the outset. Negative behaviors are targeted first before progressing to skills such as identifying colors, shapes and numbers.
With all clients, it is important to build a groundwork so that they can understand how to cope with everyday life situations. A common strategy for Illuminate therapists is to break tasks down into manageable parts that build to a bigger picture. For example, if teaching a client the colors of the rainbow, they would be first taught the colors that appear in their current environment, such as a red flower pot or a blue plate. The client is asked to name each color. Once familiar with the individual colors, the therapist will then work with them to connect those colors to the rainbow. The development of these skills enables the client to independently identify colors in daily situations.
ABA therapy looks to build foundation tools and skills like these that can be taken into adulthood. The therapy covers a wide range of situations, including understanding social cues, learning a job task and maintaining a job. The sessions will also give support to those around the client. This support comes in many different forms: it can include job coaching or equipping family members to remind clients if they are talking too much, or going off-topic.
Early intervention with therapy helps the client develop these skills from a young age. When therapy starts early, clients will be more successful in understanding social conventions, community signs and at mastering everyday tasks, such as brushing teeth. High-functioning autism is when clients use these skills to live independently and build their lives with autonomy.
Assess triggers and develop strategies
Many parents who come to Illuminate with their children have questions about the therapy. Most wonder what the treatment plan will entail, or what success will look like.
We explained what success looks like in the form of developing skills to live independently. For treatment, therapists use a variety of teaching models depending on the client’s needs. One example is natural environment teaching. This method utilizes a client’s everyday environment to teach practical skills that can include reading a book, looking at flashcards or watching a movie and then talking about the character’s emotions. The therapist then explains how to recognize them in normal life. This method might also include going to a grocery store and finding food on the shelves.
Other methods will be more prescribed and systematic, such as sitting with repetitive tasks and trials to check that the client understands the skills they need and that they are hitting the goals.
Common outcomes of ABA therapy
Parents will, of course, have expectations of ABA therapy as their children move from childhood into adulthood. A common goal for many parents is independent living, or holding down a job. Through ABA therapy, therapists, parents and clients can set individual goals that will help support them through their lives, whether that is to live independently, go out to work, or stay living within the support of their family. This work generally starts at around the age of 14 when the therapist and parents can look at what adulthood will look like for the client.
The success of ABA therapy is dependent on the individual, and the goals will be greatly different depending on their abilities at the outset. Those with high-functioning autism will need little support once they have the skills and foundations set out through ABA. In contrast, others with high support needs may require 24-hour supervision, help with medication or hygiene tasks such as washing and showering.
For many children with high-functioning autism, life outcomes are extremely positive – their natural abilities lending themselves to certain roles, such as an ability to focus can be translated into high-level jobs that are very systematic. There is a lot of success from those with high-functioning autism with an ability to focus, and ABA therapy gives them the supporting tools to cope with the social areas of adult life that they may have struggled with otherwise.
ABA can help those with high-functioning autism learn social skills that they may lack, or may not understand. For example, if they want to be a doctor but lack the social skills and understanding to facilitate bedside manner, an ABA therapist will teach them to recognize standard social conventions and the appropriate responses, even if those social conventions aren’t instinctive.
Other clients may have greater needs, and the support is focused on practical life skills – which ABA therapy can help create.
Working with clients from their teenage years through to adulthood, the goal for Illuminate therapists is to build skills that facilitate life: and with this model, we have seen clients move from the family home into their own apartments with success, and helped countless others lead happy, independent lives.