Low Functioning Autism (Classic Autism)
The Autism Society of America estimates that more than 600,000 adults are living with autism in the United
States. That number will most likely soar, given the CDC's disclosed an increase in the numbers of children
with autism. The newest numbers suggest that one in every 68 children has autism. Autism is generally
understood as a group of related disorders, where people diagnosed with the condition experience its
symptoms to a greater or lesser extent. At the severe end of the spectrum is low-functioning autism, which
can cause extensive impairments in all areas of development. Usually, low functioning autistic children have
little or no language, some degree of mental retardation, little awareness of other people and expectations.
Stereotypical features such as gestures, rituals and many other odd behaviors are visibly apparent in lower
functioning children. Self injurious behavior is much more common in low-functioning autistics than in their
high-functioning peers.

Research has been inclined to focus on people at the "milder" end of the scale - with "high functioning"
autism. Consequently, this has led to a comparable neglect of the language impairment and academic
disabilities experienced by people with more severe forms of the condition. Researchers from Warwick
University have tested their theory that, for a child with "low functioning autism", an inability to link words
such as "spoon" and "chair" with what they know about spoons and chairs in general is related to severe
memory impairment. They also unpredictably found that children with 'high functioning' autism have a
similar memory problem, but in a milder form. The results should initiate further discussion about the causes
of language and learning impairment in low functioning autism. Sometimes a child who seemed to be low-
functioning in childhood eventually gains language and some awareness of the world and social norms and
will move towards the high functioning end of the spectrum. So there is hope as determining a child's IQ
under the age of 3 years is very difficult.

Severe Cognitive Impairment

Generally, those who are labeled as having a severe cognitive impairment are individuals who have greater
difficulty with social skills, and academic performance. They often have few readily known and/or socially
appropriate means for communicating with others. It should not be surprising then, that these individuals
may easily exhibit challenging behaviors, such as self-injury and aggression. This may be because they
simply have not learned a better way of reacting or coping with the demands of daily stressors, or may have
no better means for communicating with others.

These children may also engage in more sensory-related activities such as hand flapping, spinning, or
rocking. They do not speak, often do not understand receptive language, do not care nor do they wish to
engage in conversation unless it is absolutely necessary and it is extremely limited due to the lack of speech,
do not respond well to behavioral therapy, and do not show a great deal of improvement. Retardation is
common, epilepsy is common, and other disorders may be present as well. They do not express emotions
(except anger) and whether they experience those emotions is unknown due to their inability to

Low Functioning vs. High Functioning

Autism presents in a wide degree, from those who are nearly socially impaired and apparently mentally
handicapped to those whose symptoms are mild or improved enough to appear ordinarily ("normal") to the
general public. In terms of both classification and therapy, autistic individuals are often divided into those
with an IQ<80 referred to as having "low-functioning autism" (LFA), while those with IQ>80 are referred to
as having "high-functioning autism" (HFA). Low and high functioning are more commonly applied to how
well an individual can accomplish activities of daily living, rather than to IQ. The terms low and high
functioning are controversial and not all people living with autism accept these labels. The number of people
diagnosed with LFA is not rising quite as sharply as HFA, indicating that at least part of the explanation for
the apparent rise is probably better diagnostics.

Children with low-functioning autism are more likely to display mental retardation, epilepsy, and extremely
limited receptive/expressive language skills. On the other hand, students with the label of severe disabilities
can possess exceptional talents. In other words, students labeled as high-functioning may be severely
disabled by their autism. And those who are labeled as low- functioning may be less affected by the
characteristics associated with autism. People can be said to have "low-functioning autism" or "high-
functioning autism," depending upon the severity of their symptoms and the results of an IQ (intelligence)
test. Even though classification of individuals by IQ test scores have endured 20 years of criticism,
educators still tend to further classify students into the following categories:

1.        Educable (IQ 70 - 55)
2.        Trainable (IQ 55 - 40)
3.        Severe (IQ 40 - 25)
4.        Profound (IQ below 25)

Classification of mental retardation by measured IQ score has four levels: mild, moderate, severe, and
profound. Educators use these categories for the intention of curriculum development, classroom placement,
and teacher certification. These terms are mainly stereotypical and unfavorable.

More Common Traits in Low Functioning Autism

•        Hand-wringing
•        Appearance of poorly coordinated manner of walking / stepping
•        Severely impaired expressive and receptive language development
•        Lack of or infrequent initiation
•        Lack of usual nonverbal gestures (i.e., pointing, head shake, nod)
•        Unable to control improper behavior
•        Avoids or uses eye contact in odd ways
•        Prefers to be alone
•        Inability to imitate (body movement, vocal, motor)
•        Engages in rhythmic body movements such as rocking, pacing, hand flapping, toe walking, spinning
•        Over- and under-sensitivity to sound, smell, touch, visual stimulus and pain
•        May not be seek physical comfort from parents/caregiver
•        Unusual display of emotion, for example, giggling or weeping for no apparent reason
•        Impulsive
•        Unwillingness
•        Aggressive behavior
•        Self-injurious behavior

Education for Low Functioning Autism

Limited grammar and an impulsive sensitivity to stimulus are often thought to be typical of low-functioning
autism, as is a strong visual processing preference.  When designing educational programs for students with
autism labeled as severely disabled, professionals and family members are advised to consider that programs
for a particular student is to be specifically determined through the individualized education program (IEP)
process. There is no IEP for people who are low-functioning versus people who are high-functioning. There
are only IEPs for each individual student. Individualized programs must explain approaches for providing the
student with acceptable and understandable ways of communication, teaching situation-appropriate social
behaviors, and providing experiences that satisfy sensory needs by promoting desensitization or reducing
sensory overload in specific settings and situations.

If a child has greater difficulty learning, then the crucial school years should be spent teaching him/her to
participate in beneficial activities. A functional living curriculum is various activities the person will need in
order to live, work, and participate in his/her community. Life skills such as balancing a check book,
recreating at the neighborhood YMCA, eating at a restaurant, maintaining a job, and shopping are vital goals.
Parents of those children who are perceived as low functioning must advocate the need for such living
activities in the child’s IEP. Many children are grouped in programs relating on the level of functioning and
disabilities instead of their abilities. There is no set label or curriculum which fits all students with autism; no
precise placement. What your child learns in school should express their diversity of preferences.

Behavior & emotional problems - Students with retardation are more likely to exhibit behavior and
emotional problems than their peers. Rejection often results from peers' perception of the inappropriate
nature of explicit behavior rather than academic incompetence. Therefore, the teachers should emphasize
integration efforts and focus on the need for instruction in social skills and social competence. Cooperative
learning strategies can be very effective.

Concrete concepts - Students with mild mental retardation work better with physical concepts rather than
with thinking, have difficulty with short-term memory and in organizing information for later recall, and find
it difficult to simplify to a variety of situations.

Achievement - Academically, low functioning children lag behind in achievement for their age expectations.
Typically, students with mental retardation are three to four years behind their peers without disabilities and
may manage from a second- to a sixth-grade level of achievement upon completion of formal education.

Locus of control theory - is a concept in between psychology and sociology, related to where individuals
approach responsibility, choice, and control for events in their lives. It distinguishes between two common
paths which place the actual control either internal or external to the person themselves. This decision,
which is not usually within conscious awareness, strongly influences motivation and a sense of self direction
and psychological integrity on the one hand (if seen as something outside the control of the person
themselves), and supports notions of helplessness, blame, and lack of psychological potency. Train the
student to be aware of the importance of attention and to learn how to actively monitor its occurrence in his
or her own learning efforts. The concept of attention can be broken down into attention span (length of time
on task); focus (to restrain from distracting or unforeseen stimuli); and selective attention (the discrimination
of important stimulus characteristics).

Physical problems - Physically, some children with mild mental disabilities are below average in height,
weight, and skeletal maturity. Many of these children display coinciding physical problems.

Functional skills - Students with mild mental retardation can reach academic goals, even though it may
take them longer than other students to do so. These children can acquire basic communication skills, both
oral and written. The teacher should emphasize functional achievement (adaptive skills) that will help
students become financially and socially independent adults. Frequent practice and reinforcement can help
students acquire appropriate social response acquisition.

Mediation processes – The use of the mediation processes can help students in problem solving, retention,
or recall. Such processes or strategies are: verbal

Children with low-functioning autism do not control their behavior while out in public. They can be violent
and for no apparent reason, to the rest of us, attack someone and then passive again a few minutes later.
These individuals do not acquire the communication necessary for holding a conversation with strangers,
and the skills therapists provide is very limited. There has been surprisingly little research investigating the
causes for the language and learning difficulties in low functioning autism. About half of all autistic children
are mute, and those who speak often only repeat what they have heard. It is estimated that fifty percent of
individuals with autism develop purposeful communicative language.
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