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Low Functioning Autism: Definition & Characteristics

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders in a variety of settings. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

In this lesson, you will learn about some of the most common characteristics of people with low functioning autism, some of the techniques used to teach and support them, and why we should never assume they cannot learn.

Positions on the Spectrum

The autism spectrum by definition covers a wide range of performance. At one end are persons with normal intelligence who exhibit some of the typical characteristics of autism, such as poor social skills and difficulty with theory of mind, or understanding other people's points of view. At the other end of the spectrum, we find people who often need the help of others to do even the most basic of daily tasks, and whose communication and social skills may seem nearly nonexistent.

Defining Low Functioning Autism

Typically, children and adults with low functioning autism are not verbal. If they do speak, their speech often consists largely of echolalia, or repetition of what they hear. As a result, they have a hard time expressing themselves and may act out when they are upset, in pain or frustrated. Self -injury (hitting or biting themselves) and self-stimulation (flapping hands, walking in circles or spinning around) are common forms of this behavior.

Their memory for events is generally below average, though they may have pockets of exceptional talent, often called savant skills. They may have other physical challenges like seizures, migraines, or digestive disorders. In addition, people with autism often have sensory disturbances, such as discomfort with being touched, or inability to tolerate loud noise or bright light. The medical definition of low functioning autism is an IQ below 80.

Debate Over Terms

There is considerable disagreement within the autism community about the very use of the term 'low functioning' and how it is determined. A score on one test, measured at an arbitrary cutoff point, doesn't take into account much of what makes a person who they are. In fact, these tests may not accurately measure the cognitive ability of an individual, but rather focus on identifying the spectrum level. If a person with autism has a low IQ, but is interested in the world around him, wants to learn new things, and tries hard, is that really low function?

Consider Dennis. He's thirty years old and lives in a group home with two other men with autism. He only says a couple of words, and he needs a caregiver's help to bathe and dress. However, he loves to spend time in the garden out back, and has learned over time, with patient repetition, the names of many plants and tools. If Nita, his primary caregiver, says, ''Dennis, can you hand me the shovel?'' he does it with a big smile on his face.

Making a Connection

When a new caregiver, Byron, started working at Dennis' group home, he assumed at first that Dennis couldn't understand or express himself at all. Nita showed him how Dennis communicates using picture cards laminated and velcroed to a board. Byron was quietly amazed when Dennis pulled a photo of a bottle of juice off the board and brought it to Nita to ask for a drink.

Over time, Byron learned Dennis' language. One day, Dennis made some unhappy noises, and then began to slap himself on the forehead. Byron panicked, tried to block Dennis' hand, and called for Nita. Nita explained that Dennis hadn't yet mastered a better way to tell them when he has a sinus headache. She reassured Dennis and got the nurse to bring him his medicine, and he calmed down.

Byron tried to hug Dennis one day, and Dennis became upset. That upset Byron too, but after some thought, he had an idea. He began teaching Dennis to give him a fist bump as a greeting. When Dennis' sister and her family came to visit, they were amused to see Byron arrive for work and Dennis immediately trot across the room with his fist held out!

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