What Is High Functioning Autism? 6 Things You Should Know

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today I want to talk to you a little bit

about high-functioning autism which was

previously referred to as Asperger’s

disorder and I want to talk about the

the symptoms that somebody might present

with and then I want to talk about some

of the differences between the sort of

levels of autism that an individual can

have one of the most important things to

say is there’s not actually an official

diagnosis of high-functioning autism

there is a umbrella diagnosis which we

call an autism spectrum disorder and an

autism spectrum disorder is

characterized by certain criteria but

people can fall from the very severe end

to the very mild end and this is where I

think a lot of the confusion comes in

around the term autism and and what it

means one of my first training

experiences as a psychology intern was

working with teenagers who at the time

would have been diagnosed with

Asperger’s disorder and now would be

diagnosed with high-functioning autism

and they were such a interesting

challenging fun group to work with and

and I think that understanding a little

bit about how they present can be very

helpful so an individual with

high-functioning autism may be able to

function fairly well in society like

they’re going to be able to hold a job

they’re going to be able to do their

basic life skills like make themselves

food you know dress themselves do

personal hygiene those things are going

to be no problem

or if they are a problem a very slight

problem that they can adapt to the

biggest difficulty that people with

high-functioning autism have is around

social interaction and coming

education and this is where they are

frequently labeled as quirky or odd in

the past they might have been labeled as

a nerd or a geek there are certain

behaviors and ways of speaking which are

fairly distinct and we’re gonna talk a

little bit about those in the next

segment one of the main problems as I

mentioned before that people with

high-functioning autism struggle with is

social interaction and communication and

this these symptoms run the gamut from

difficulty with reading social cues to

difficulty with eye contact as well as

sometimes difficulty with perspective

taking or understanding where another

individual is coming from and we’re

gonna break those down a little bit in

terms of the first one a social cue

difficulty might show up as I don’t give

you enough space so not really

understanding personal boundaries maybe

standing too closely to someone maybe

talking too loudly for the situation

maybe going up to somebody and saying

hey this is my interest and then

monopolizing the conversation around a

topic that they’re really interested in

or engaged with and so understandably

people who aren’t familiar with it might

pull away or not be able to naturally

interact as they might with somebody

else who had these basic conversational

skills so these these skills which we

call kind of social pragmatics are a

really key difference between somebody

struggling with high functioning autism

and somebody who we would refer to as

neurotypical some of the common

behaviors you will see in somebody who

has high-functioning autism are a

difficulty with eye contact to the point

that it’s noticeable as well as often a

difficulty with small talks so

the sort of social niceties we use when

entering into conversation with other

people asking about interests you know

saying hey how was your day they may not

necessarily have the innate ability to

do that and so one of the key

interventions with people with

high-functioning autism is teaching them

social skills so essentially training

them to be able to recognize cues and to

act in an appropriate way and if this is

done in a structured manner it can be

pretty effective

high functioning people on the autism

spectrum might exhibit other behaviors

that would appear strange or odd from

the outside some of these are like

preoccupation with routine engaging in

certain repetitive behaviors and this

can be either a call for a calming

effect or just because it’s like this

intense interest that that they have in

things and this is I think one of the

coolest things about people who present

in this way is that when they are

interested in something they go into it

100% and they will they will know more

about it than probably anybody else

you’re gonna run into except the people

who are experts in that profession and

that’s really cool to see how their

brain works in that way where it can

just really delve into a topic and I

think you know this has been sometimes

portrayed like very old movie Rain Man

where the person was preoccupied with

one particular thing and would talk

about it over and over again what I’ve

seen is much more frequent is having a

very intense interest in one area and

when that area is sort of exhausted

moving on to another area so in kids

this might look like a period where

beyond normal childhood curiosity they

want to know everything about dinosaurs

and all the

names of dinosaurs and what dinosaurs

look like and where they came from and

we’re not talking just like

Tyrannosaurus Rex or Stegosaurus we’re

talking like this era Precambrian era or

Jurassic era and this is the dinosaurs

that would go with these and the other

thing that people on the outside

sometimes find annoying is that because

they have such an intense interest in

preoccupation they will correct people

even adults who don’t have the facts

straight about these things and nine

times out of ten if you get corrected by

somebody with high-functioning autism on

their facts they’re gonna be right so

that’s an important tip to remember

another really common symptom in people

with high-functioning autism can be sort

of a tendency to have sensory overload

so for example they might do okay in a

regular school setting or a regular

classroom but when it comes time for the

the pep rally or the assembly they can

become super overwhelmed and shut down

or an adult with high-functioning autism

might be able to go to the grocery store

but if they’re you know in an area where

suddenly a large crowd develops they

might be significantly distressed

because number one it pushes them

outside of their routine and comfort

zone and number two just everything kind

of coming in from their senses is on

high volume and so when this happens

sometimes you’ll see behaviors that seem

they might seem rude they might even be

aggressive at times and I’m I want to be

clear that I’m not saying that people

with high-functioning autism are

aggressive I’m saying that if any human

being feels trapped and in sensory

overload they might react by pushing

somebody out of the way to get out of

the situation so this sensory overload

is really important to think about when

you’re you’re dealing with somebody or

working with somebody

and helping them to kind of structure

their lives in a way that’s gonna allow

them to be you know as high functioning

as possible this last point I’m gonna

talk about in terms of high-functioning

autism is really around the the

misconception that’s out there about

individuals with autism not being

sensitive or lacking empathy and I think

there is a distinction that needs to be

made between having difficulty putting

yourself in someone’s shoes and

imagining what their experience might be

which is empathy and feeling hurt or sad

or afraid when somebody else is in pain

and what I have seen is that for many

people with high-functioning autism

while they may not be able to take the

perspective a perspective of someone in

pain they are truly concerned when

someone is in pain and they want to

relieve that pain and we do them a

disservice by thinking this is something

they’re not capable of so in terms of

this empathy sympathy debate I think the

most important thing to recognize is

that because somebody may not be able to

express an understanding of your

experience that doesn’t mean that they

can’t feel for you in your experience

and there’s a really interesting fact

around people with high-functioning

autism and something called mirror

neurons and so mirror neurons are these

neurons in the the front of our brain

here in the prefrontal cortex that help

us recognize and imitate behavior in

others and pick up on emotions in others

that we can see or relate to on a

personal level and what they found is

that in people with autism spectrum

disorders they have fewer mirror neurons

than the neuro

typical individual because of this this

lack perceived lack of empathy isn’t

really that it’s more of a neurotypical

inability to perspective take in the

same way as others in this article I tried

to give you a general overview and

snapshot of how somebody with

high-functioning autism might present in

the world it was not exhaustive I

certainly didn’t cover every symptom or

every possible variation but I hope you

have a better understanding of what this

might look like and some of the

difficulties that somebody who has this

difference might struggle with as a

result of living in a neurotypical

society and I think that’s a really

important distinction is that this

really is a difference in brain wiring

and part of the reason that it becomes a

disorder is because as a society we like

everything to conform and people with

high-functioning autism don’t

necessarily fit into that box or speak

the same language as the majority of us

so I hope we can be sensitive to that

and really start to appreciate that the

different ways people can present in the

world you know I think there’s been

significant miss categorization and

stigmatization of this disorder because

of lack of understanding or inaccurate

media portrayals one show that’s doing a

decent job of trying to counter this and

present a more balanced view it’s called

atypical and it’s on Netflix and so if

you want a representation of how this

might show up maybe check out that show

it doesn’t get everything right but it

certainly does a sensitive job of

portraying what somebody’s experience