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A Guide to Understanding Low-Functioning Autism

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They exhibit behaviors that make it extremely difficult to conduct daily life.

Their symptoms are more prominent than those of others on the spectrum and often include an intellectual disability.

They cannot live independently and require full-time support to complete basic tasks.

These are the children who’ve been diagnosed with low-functioning autism.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) features a wide range of symptoms. 

On the one end are those adults and children with the most significant impairments, known as severe or low-functioning autism.

Despite their challenges, these individuals can thrive with the proper support.

That’s where we at Heartlinks can help.

You’re not alone.

What is Low Functioning Autism?

At Heartlinks, concerned parents and caregivers often ask, “What is low-functioning autism?” 

Low-functioning autism in adults and children impairs their ability to conduct daily life; this is the most severe kind of this particular developmental disorder. 

This type of ASD is characterized by significant impairment of social skills, behavior, and communication.

Traditionally, the term low-functioning autism was used to describe this variation of ASD. 

However, the DMS (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health), the leading authority on mental health diagnoses in the U.S., has changed the terminology. 

Today, low-functioning autism is now more commonly referred to as ASD level 3 or level 3 autism.   

The Symptoms of Low Functioning Autism

Low-functioning autism symptoms are as wide-ranging as the spectrum itself.

The following is a summary of the primary indications of this developmental disorder.


Child with non-verbal Autism

Typically, children with autism have difficulty communicating with others. 

However, one of the first signs of low-functioning autism is more significant communication challenges, including speech regression or speech delays.

These children may speak in a monotone voice or sing-song-like rhythm, often repeating the exact phrases or words without any understanding of their meaning.

They may be described as non-verbal or having limited verbal capabilities.

Additionally, they may have difficulty understanding the language used by others. This means they’d be unable to follow directions, understand, or participate in small talk and be incapable of building a significant vocabulary.

Repetitive and Obsessive Behaviors

From lining up objects to having an intense fixation on a particular activity or exhibiting self-injurious or harmful actions, the behaviors of a low-functioning autistic child are pronounced. 

Couple that with repetitive behaviors, including exaggerated hand-flapping, rocking, and clicking sounds with their tongue. 

Poor impulse control and exaggerated reactions to changes in routine are also symptoms of low-functioning autism.

Sensory Processing  

The majority of autistic children experience some degree of a sensory processing disorder. Whether it’s too bright a light, too much noise, or a strong smell, there is likely a stimulus that overwhelms each child on the spectrum.

Children with low-functioning autism have an even greater sensitivity to stimuli, especially physical touch. They find cuddling, hugging, or even hand-holding upsetting and generally uncomfortable.

Often, their movements are stiff, clumsy, or exaggerated due to their sensory processing disorders, and they find it difficult to adjust to new surroundings. 

For example, they may not like going from a dry environment to a humid one or transitioning from walking on carpet to tile floor. They are hyper-aware of sensations.

Social Interactions

Yes, children with autism do naturally struggle with social interactions in general. For those with low-functioning autism, the difficulty with picking up on social cues and developing friendships becomes even more difficult. 

They often have trouble expressing empathy, avoid eye contact with others, and have inappropriate responses to specific situations (i.e., laughing when someone is discussing their cancer diagnosis).

The Difference Between High Functioning Autism vs Low Functioning Autism

It’s important to remember that each child and diagnosis of autism is different.

Typically, children with high-functioning autism do not exhibit any type of intellectual disability and can live independent lives. 

This is different from low-functioning autistic children, who need considerably more support often for the rest of their lives. 

Yes, high-functioning or level 1 children with autism may have difficulties with communication and social interactions. Still, through therapy, they can learn to have healthy relationships with the symptoms of high-functioning autism

Treatments for Low-Functioning Autism

Before beginning treatment for your child with low-functioning autism, you must seek an official medical diagnosis—the earlier, the better. 

Research indicates that early intervention for autistic children has a significant impact on their development and long-term success.

Once you’ve received a diagnosis, then you can begin treatment. Usually, the specialists who evaluated your child will develop an individualized therapy treatment plan.

The following is an overview of the different treatments available to low-functioning autistic children.

ABA Therapy

Perhaps the most widely known and used autism treatment is applied behavior analysis therapy or ABA. 

This treatment aims to help reduce undesirable behaviors and increase acceptable ones. 

ABA therapy can also benefit an autistic child trying to learn new skills, including some of the following:

  • Social Skills
  • Play abilities (i.e., sharing or taking turns) 
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Self-care and personal hygiene skills (i.e., getting dressed, brushing teeth)
  • Learning to use assistive communication technology (if the child is nonverbal)
  • Fine and gross motor skills

Occupational Therapy

The focus of occupational therapy for autistic children is to help them improve their physical, cognitive, motor, and social skills. As these skills develop, the child can become more independent. 

Even for children with low-functioning autism, an occupational therapy program will evaluate how they play, interact with others, learn, and care for themselves. 

Using this evaluation as a foundation, the therapist will create a plan to develop the child’s specific skills to allow them to live as independently as possible.  

Music Therapy

Child undergoing music therapy

Music therapy has been a long-standing treatment for autistic children and adults, especially those with low-functioning autism.

The therapist can address a patient’s physical, social, cognitive, and emotional needs by using sound, specifically music, in a therapeutic relationship. 

Once a music therapist has identified the needs, strengths, and limitations of their autistic student, then they can develop a plan with focused objectives and goals.

Music therapy has many benefits, from lowering anxiety and developing new communication skills to improving hand-eye coordination.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Occupational therapists primarily perform sensory integration therapy. The goal is to help autistic children improve the way they process sensory input.

The more efficiently they can process input such as noise or light, the less likely they are to have an extreme reaction when exposed to bright lights or loud noises.

Get More Help from Heartlinks ABA

There is tremendous focus on much of the literature as to the challenges facing both parents and children who are diagnosed with low-functioning autism.

These kids will have significant communication, social, and behavioral impairments.

Yet, with the proper support, these children can thrive and flourish. 

From ABA to occupational, sensory integration, and music therapy, there are many ways to help these children live fulfilling lives.
For more information on low-functioning autism, contact Heartlinks today.

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