Autism presents in a wide degree, from those who are nearly dysfunctional and apparently mentally handicapped to those whose symptoms are mild or remedied enough to appear unexceptional ("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 generally 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 autistic's accept these labels.

This discrepancy can lead to confusion among service providers who equate IQ with functioning and may refuse to serve high-IQ autistic people who are severely compromised in their ability to perform daily living tasks, or may fail to recognize the intellectual potential of many autistic people who are considered LFA. For example, some professionals refuse to recognize autistic's who can speak or write as being autistic at all, because they still think of autism as a communication disorder so severe that no speech or writing is possible.

As a consequence, many "high-functioning" autistic persons, and autistic people with a relatively high IQ, are under diagnosed, thus making the claim that "autism implies retardation" self-fulfilling. 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.

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