Autism is a spectrum, and every person with autism is different and unique. It is often said, “if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.”
Autism does not always present the same way, even within families, and a person with autism will have different signs and traits than others with autism.
Oftentimes, these signs are not recognized until adulthood. Someone with mild signs of autism may not find their life impacted much at all.
Sometimes we refer to these individuals as having high-functioning autism.
What is High-Functioning Autism?
While not an official medical diagnosis, the term “high-functioning autism ” refers to a pattern of disordered traits and behaviors consistent with a diagnosis of autism but still allows the individual to function relatively well in society.
According to the DSM-IV criteria, an early diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) can be made when there are “persistent deficits in each of three areas of social communication and interaction” AND “at least two of four types of restricted, repetitive behaviors.”
In 2013, the broader diagnosis of ASD replaced the previous grouping of Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
However, in more recent years, all of these individual disorders have now fallen under the ASD umbrella.
A person who would have previously been diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder is now thought of as having “high functioning autism” on the ASD spectrum.
What are Signs of High-Functioning Autism?
People with high-functioning autism may have developed a series of coping mechanisms and compensatory strategies over time that help to “mask” the signs of autism, which can make it more difficult to determine autism severity if it is, in fact, present.
These individuals, especially if not diagnosed as children, often might not realize that they have autism and see their ASD behaviors and adaptations in daily life as normal.
It is important to remember that one individual will not exhibit every single one of these traits, and the degree to which these traits are exhibited will differ from person to person.
Autism can look slightly different in a child than in an adult who may have learned how to adapt their behaviors.
In addition, the signs of autism can differ widely in women and girls versus men and boys.
Signs of High-Functioning Autism in Children
Children with high-functioning autism are likely to exhibit a wide range of symptoms in early childhood:
- Delayed speech
- Fear of social situations
- May appear more mature for their age and have above-average intelligence
- May exhibit obsessive actions
- A tendency to avoid eye contact
- Shortened attention spans
- Trouble deviating from a routine
- Frequent tantrums, especially when overstimulated.
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Trouble making friends and maintaining social relationships
- May often interrupt or “speak over” others.
- May become obsessive over their hobbies and interests.
- Not “fitting in” with peers.
- Difficulty sharing with others
- May be thought of as “shy.”
- Trouble adapting to changes
- Toe walking
- Speaking in a monotone voice
- Other unusual movement patterns
- Frequent stimming (unusual and repetitive patterns of behavior such as hand-flapping or nail-picking)
- Needs to have a comfort item
- Seeks soothing sensory stimulation
- Sensitive to different textures of food or don’t want their food touching
- Sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, and strong smells
- Trouble with fine motor activities (such as cutting with scissors)
- Excellent memory
- Odd sleep patterns
- Resistance to touch, such as hugs
- Unaware or personal space
- Seems to be disinterested in activities or conversations going around them
- Difficulty comprehending the passage of time (i.e., has it been 1 hour or 3)
- Inability to perceive danger or ulterior motives in everyday life
- Feels a need to fidget
- Unusual attachment to certain objects
- Uses abnormal tone and pitch when speaking
- May use a higher vocabulary than their peers.
- Inability to self-regulate may lead to meltdowns.
- Uncomfortable with or confused by sarcasm, joking, and small talk
Signs of High-Functioning Autism in Adults
The common signs of high-functioning autism in adults are very similar to those in children but will change situationally as children grow up.
It is a good idea to review the childhood list in addition to the one below, as many of the signs may overlap. Some of the most common traits in adults include:
- Inability to maintain eye contact without discomfort
- Trouble assessing social cues
- Anxiety in social settings
- Has a hard time with the nuances of verbal communication
- Trouble understanding jokes and sarcasm
- Rituals and restrictive habits
- Easily overloaded by sensory input.
- Trouble making decisions
- Can be easily overwhelmed
- Trouble understanding what others are thinking and feeling.
- Adherence to strict routines
- Noticing sensory input (sounds, smells, etc.) that others don’t (sensory rooms can be helpful for this).
- Difficulty speaking in a two-way conversation
- Ability to “hyperfocus” on work or a specific interest
- Abnormal body language
- Experiencing emotions more intensely than others
- Frustration with even small changes or disruptions
- Sensitivity to light, noise, or smell
- Difficulty with transitions; frequently late
- Lack of concern with personal hygiene
- Would prefer to listen and observe than speak and interact
- May find it easier to associate with those who are younger than them.
- Often accused of being rude or blunt.
- May have perfectionism in certain areas.
- Prefers to work at home or away from others
- Avoids stressful social situations such as parties
- Prefers nonverbal communication to verbal, often in the form of writing
- May be seen as “selfish” due to being overly concerned with oneself.
- Has a hard time tracking when more than one conversation is occurring at once
- Has a tendency to take things literally.
Another common sign of ASD in both children and adults is the presence of common comorbidities, including anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD, OCD, and bipolar disorder.
High Functioning Autism FAQs
How to Tell Your Child They Have High-Functioning Autism?
It is always best to be clear and direct while making sure your child knows you are available for questions and if they want to talk about it – or not.
A few talk therapy sessions with a licensed psychologist or the school counselor could also be beneficial. Depending on the age of your child, they may be requested to participate in the official diagnosis process.
You can explain that these questions and evaluations are necessary to learn more about them and how they think and that you will help them overcome the obstacles that come with high-functioning autism throughout their life.
What Jobs Are Good for High-Functioning Autism?
Due to the ability to control their surroundings, limit sensory information, and limit social interaction, many people with high-functioning autism enjoy jobs where they can work from home or in an office setting.
Individuals with high-functioning autism often have a high cognitive function and can excel in careers that require working with data, research, or analysis.
Similarly, individuals with high-functioning autism may enjoy creative pursuits such as graphic design, writing, music, videography, or marketing.
People with autism can also excel in career fields that require specialized knowledge, such as medicine, law, or engineering.
Can a Person with High-Functioning Autism Live a Normal Life?
Yes. Absolutely. Many people with high-functioning autism do not even realize they are on the spectrum until later in life, indicating that it is not only possible but quite common to live a “normal” life with high-functioning autism.
Life on the spectrum is like any other life, but with a few differences in personality and behavior.
Many people with high-functioning autism can get married, start a family, maintain friendships, live on their own, go to college, and have a career!
Can Someone with High-Functioning Autism Join the Military?
To join the United States military, an individual must disclose all relevant medical information and diagnoses.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Defense policy bars individuals with an ASD diagnosis from serving in the U.S. Military.
Medical enlistment waivers can be granted on a case-by-case basis; however, these are rarely granted for individuals with ASD.
There are many individuals with autism who had served in the U.S. military, likely before an official diagnosis was ever made.
In some nations, such as Israel, the military allows and even welcomes those with an ASD diagnosis on the higher functioning end of the spectrum.
Many people have been calling on the U.S. military to change its policies and allow those with high-functioning autism to serve their nation in any way they can.
At What Age Does Autism Appear?
Signs of autism can be present at any age but are most often detected in young children around the age of 2 or 3.
With high-functioning autism, early signs of autism spectrum disorder may not be evident (or properly evaluated) until late teens, early adulthood, or beyond. This makes it somewhat difficult for early intervention.
Quite commonly, the signs are there but not recognized. The Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins was famously diagnosed in his 70s!
Should I Pursue a Diagnosis of Autism?
For an adult, the decision of whether or not to get an official diagnosis is a very personal one. Getting a diagnosis can lead to a better understanding of yourself and others and the ability to learn to manage your symptoms.
On the other hand, obtaining a diagnosis as an adult could worsen mental health problems such as low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
If you suspect your child may be on the spectrum, you should always pursue an accurate diagnosis and get them a screening test.
If an individual is diagnosed as a child, they may qualify for support services through the state or school district to help autistic children improve their school success and quality of life.
These services can include speech therapy, occupational therapy, ABA therapy, and groups to improve social skills.
Who Are Some Famous People with High-Functioning Autism?
Hans Christian Andersen, Tim Burton, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Charles Darwin, comedian Jeremy McLellan, and actor Dan Aykroyd have all been diagnosed with or suspected of high-functioning autism due to their personality traits. Most recently, even Elon Musk announced that he was on the spectrum!
If you suspect that you or a loved one may have high-functioning autism, the best thing to do is to seek out a medical professional who can help complete a thorough assessment as part of the diagnostic process.
That medical professional should also be able to recommend additional medical tests if need be.
The DSM-IV criteria are precise and make diagnosis quite straightforward for a qualified health professional.
On the other hand, obtaining an official diagnosis may not be that important to you- in which case, it might be enough just to read through the high-functioning autism checklists and information above and see if you identify with the common traits of those on the spectrum.
Autism or not, there is hope for anyone who does everything in their power to live their best life.