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High Functioning Autism Life Span: Health Risks & Factors

Explore high functioning autism life span, challenges, interventions, and ways to enhance quality of life.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
May 16, 2024
8 min read
min read

Understanding High-Functioning Autism

High-functioning autism, a term often discussed in the realm of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), provides a framework for understanding individuals who, despite their diagnosis, demonstrate higher cognitive functioning and milder symptoms. This section explores the definition, characteristics, and cognitive functioning levels associated with high-functioning autism.

Definition and Characteristics

High-functioning autism refers to a subtype of autism spectrum disorder where individuals exhibit milder symptoms and higher levels of cognitive functioning. It is often used to describe individuals who, though diagnosed with autism, possess average or above-average intellectual abilities. Such individuals may have good language skills and cognitive capabilities, allowing them to navigate certain aspects of daily life with relative independence.

Despite these strengths, individuals with high-functioning autism continue to face challenges in various areas. These include social interaction, communication, and restricted or repetitive behaviors. The recognition of these behavioral characteristics is vital, as it allows for the development of appropriate support strategies aimed towards enhancing the individual's quality of life.

Cognitive Functioning Levels

The cognitive functioning levels of individuals with high-functioning autism vary widely. While these individuals typically exhibit average or above-average intelligence, their cognitive functioning may differ in certain areas, particularly those related to social interaction and communication.

Childhood and adolescence are crucial periods for individuals with high-functioning autism, with early intervention and support playing a vital role in addressing the core challenges associated with autism. Special education programs, behavioral interventions, and therapies can significantly aid individuals with high-functioning autism, helping them thrive academically and socially during this stage [1].

As these individuals transition into adulthood, promoting independence, self-determination, and community inclusion becomes increasingly important. Support in areas such as employment, housing, and social relationships plays a crucial role in enhancing their quality of life [1].

In conclusion, understanding high-functioning autism involves recognizing both the challenges and strengths associated with this condition. Despite facing difficulties in certain areas, individuals with high-functioning autism are capable of leading fulfilling lives, given the right support and interventions.

Challenges and Health Risks

Living with high-functioning autism presents both unique challenges and health risks. Understanding these can aid in the development of effective strategies and interventions that improve the quality of life and life expectancy for individuals with autism.

Physical Comorbidities

Individuals with high-functioning autism often face various physical health-related problems that can amplify the core symptoms of autism. These physical comorbidities contribute to the shorter lifespan experienced by individuals with autism compared to their peers without autism.

Various physical comorbidities have been identified in people with autism, including:

  • Neuroinflammation and immune dysregulation
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction
  • Metabolic abnormalities
  • Seizure disorders such as epilepsy

Each of these conditions can affect the individual's health and well-being, and when combined with the challenges of autism, they can significantly impact the quality of life.

Physical Comorbidities Impact on Individuals with Autism
Neuroinflammation and immune dysregulation May exacerbate autism symptoms, cause fatigue, and impact cognitive functioning
GI dysfunction Can cause discomfort, behavioral changes, and nutritional deficiencies
Metabolic abnormalities Can lead to weight gain or loss, fatigue, and other health complications
Seizure disorders such as epilepsy Can affect daily activities, cognitive functioning, and pose significant health risks

Impact on Life Expectancy

Studies show that the life expectancy of individuals with high-functioning autism, or Asperger syndrome, is shorter compared to their peers without autism. On average, individuals with high-functioning autism have a life expectancy of 58 years, compared to an average life expectancy of 72 years for those without autism.

Group Average Life Expectancy
Individuals with High-Functioning Autism 58 years
Peers without Autism 72 years

Poor health outcomes and early mortality in autism are not solely explained by communication difficulties and lack of regular health checks but are intrinsically linked to physical health problems that are persistent throughout the lifespan.

This information underscores the importance of comprehensive and ongoing health management for individuals with autism. By recognizing and addressing these physical comorbidities, it's possible to improve health outcomes and extend the life span of individuals with high-functioning autism.

Factors Influencing Life Expectancy

When considering high functioning autism life span, various factors can contribute to the overall life expectancy.

Predictors of Mortality

Individuals with high-functioning autism, or Asperger syndrome, have an average life expectancy of 58 years, shorter than their peers without autism who have an average life expectancy of 72 years [2]. This disparity could be attributed to several specific health-related predictors of mortality in individuals with autism.

Multiple studies show that individuals with autism generally have poorer health compared to their peers without autism. Physical health-related problems can exacerbate the core symptoms of autism and contribute to a shorter lifespan. Some of these physical comorbidities include neuroinflammation and immune dysregulation, GI dysfunction, metabolic abnormalities, and seizure disorders such as epilepsy.

Beyond physical health, cognitive and behavioral factors also play a significant role. Childhood IQ and early language/communication abilities are strong predictors of later outcomes in individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Higher IQ and better language skills are positively correlated with better adaptive functioning, social skills, and communication.

Impairments in social skills and activities of daily living are also predictors of mortality in autism. Early childhood impairments in social reciprocity have been found to predict mortality occurring decades later in adulthood. Difficulties in communication, inappropriate facial expressions, and social challenges contribute to these impairments. Moreover, limited self-sufficiency in activities of daily living is a significant predictor of mortality in adults with autism [4].

Social and Environmental Factors

Social and environmental factors may also significantly influence the lifespan of individuals with high-functioning autism. Active steps encouraging participation in early interventions addressing impairments in social skills and ensuring ongoing treatment throughout life can support the acquisition and maintenance of self-sufficiency, potentially impacting long-term health and survival for individuals with autism.

Addressing common health issues and maladaptive behaviors faced by individuals with autism may help decrease the risk of early mortality. Early intervention is critical in improving primary symptoms of autism, such as impairments in social-emotional reciprocity. This reduction in symptom severity during childhood can have long-term effects on autistic traits and adaptive behaviors in adulthood, potentially influencing mortality rates.

Research on autistic individuals in the UK found that some were dying prematurely, impacting overall life expectancy, which underscores the need to identify reasons for premature deaths and prevent them.

In conclusion, various factors, including predictors of mortality and social and environmental factors, significantly influence the life expectancy of individuals with high-functioning autism. Addressing these factors through early intervention, ongoing support, and a focus on improving overall health can potentially enhance the lifespan and quality of life for these individuals.

Interventions and Support

Addressing the needs of individuals with high functioning autism involves various strategies and support systems. It's essential to implement both early intervention strategies and long-term support approaches for these individuals to live fulfilling lives.

Early Intervention Strategies

Childhood and adolescence are crucial periods for individuals with high functioning autism. Early intervention and support are vital in addressing the core challenges associated with autism [1]. Special education programs, behavioral interventions, and various therapies can help individuals with high functioning autism thrive academically and socially during these stages.

Online interventions, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness-Based Therapy, have shown promise in reducing anxiety symptoms in high-functioning autistic adults. However, further research is needed to validate their efficacy and explore their benefits and limitations.

Active steps to encourage participation in early interventions addressing impairments in social skills can support the acquisition and maintenance of self-sufficiency. This approach potentially impacts the long-term health and survival of individuals with autism.

Long-term Support Approaches

As individuals with high functioning autism transition into adulthood, promoting independence, self-determination, and community inclusion becomes crucial. Support in areas such as employment, housing, and social relationships plays a significant role in enhancing their quality of life [1].

Long-term research indicates that the average life expectancy for some individuals with autism is about 39 years old. Often, they face health complications approximately 20 years earlier than those without autism, with the risk of death due to health issues being highest among low-functioning females with autism spectrum disorder.

Ensuring ongoing treatment and support throughout life can help manage these health risks and potentially extend the life span of individuals with high functioning autism. The ultimate goal is to provide these individuals with the resources and support they need to lead fulfilling, independent lives while managing the challenges of high functioning autism.

Co-occurring Conditions

Co-occurring conditions are quite common among individuals with high-functioning autism, with nearly three-quarters of autistic children being diagnosed with at least one ABT Behavioral Analysis – High Functioning Autism Life Span. These conditions can range from intellectual disabilities to sensory processing disorders, and can significantly impact the overall well-being and quality of life of those on the autism spectrum.

Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual disabilities often co-occur with autism, affecting cognitive abilities and everyday life skills. For instance, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) shares some common characteristics with autism and often co-occurs; studies indicate that 30-80% of children with autism meet the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis. While both autism and ADHD involve difficulties with attention, impulse control, and hyperactivity, autism primarily affects social communication and interaction, while ADHD primarily affects attention and hyperactivity ABT Behavioral Analysis – High Functioning Autism Life Span.

Another condition, epilepsy, is found in approximately 20-30% of autistic individuals, with seizures being most common in children under 5 years and teenagers. Those with moderate to severe intellectual disability, other neurological conditions, or a regression in skills are more likely to develop epilepsy ABT Behavioral Analysis – High Functioning Autism Life Span.

Sensory Processing Disorders

Autism also often co-occurs with sensory processing disorders, which involve difficulties in how the brain processes sensory information, such as sights, sounds, and touch. These disorders can lead to hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory input, causing discomfort, difficulty in participating in daily activities, and challenges in interacting with others.

For instance, an individual with a sensory processing disorder may be overly sensitive to certain textures or sounds, leading to avoidance behaviors. On the other hand, some individuals may seek out intense sensory experiences, such as loud music or strong flavors.

Like other co-occurring conditions, sensory processing disorders can impact the overall well-being and quality of life of individuals with autism. However, with appropriate intervention strategies and support, individuals with autism and co-occurring conditions can lead fulfilling lives.

Enhancing Quality of Life

One of the primary goals for individuals with high-functioning autism is to experience a fulfilling and independent life. Two significant aspects that can contribute to enhancing the quality of life for these individuals are social engagement and employment.

Social Engagement

Active steps to encourage participation in early interventions addressing social skill impairments can greatly benefit individuals with high-functioning autism. Ensuring ongoing treatment throughout life can support the acquisition and maintenance of self-sufficiency, potentially impacting long-term health and survival [5].

Addressing common health issues and maladaptive behaviors may help decrease the risk of early mortality. Early intervention is critical in improving primary symptoms of autism, such as impairments in social-emotional reciprocity. This reduction in symptom severity during childhood can have long-term effects on autistic traits and adaptive behaviors in adulthood, potentially influencing mortality rates.

Adequate access to appropriate healthcare and support systems are essential in improving the overall health and well-being of individuals with autism.

Employment and Independence

In order to promote independence, self-determination, and community inclusion, support in areas such as employment, housing, and social relationships plays a crucial role in enhancing the quality of life for individuals with high functioning autism [1].

However, the employment rate is very low for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, lower than people with other disabilities. Preemptive career exploration, work experience before graduation, and careful job placement can improve employment outcomes for individuals with autism.

In conclusion, social engagement and employment play crucial roles in enhancing the quality of life for individuals with high-functioning autism. Active participation in social activities, early interventions, and appropriate support can help these individuals lead fulfilling lives. Furthermore, efforts to improve employment opportunities and promote independence can significantly contribute to their overall well-being.

References

[1]: https://www.adinaaba.com/post/high-functioning-autism-life-span

[2]: https://www.thinkingautism.org.uk/addressing-poor-health-high-death-rates-in-autism/

[3]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6952468/

[4]: https://www.abtaba.com/blog/does-autism-affect-life-span

[5]: https://www.songbirdcare.com/articles/autism-life-expectancy

[6]: https://www.news-medical.net/news/20231123/Study-estimates-the-life-expectancy-and-years-of-life-lost-by-autistic-people-in-the-UK.aspx

[7]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10808656/

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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