High-Functioning Autism: Symptoms, Diagnosis And Support

Unlocking the world of high-functioning autism: symptoms, diagnosis, and support for individuals on the spectrum

Understanding High-Functioning Autism

High-functioning autism, now officially diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Level 1, is an autism diagnosis given to individuals whose autism traits appear mild. It is important to note that the term "high-functioning autism" is an informal term and is no longer used as a diagnostic term. Previously, Asperger's syndrome was used to diagnose individuals with some features of autism but with average or higher-than-average IQ and age-appropriate language skills. However, Asperger's syndrome is no longer used as a diagnostic term, and individuals with autism labeled as "high functioning" are typically diagnosed with Level 1 ASD [1].

What is High-Functioning Autism?

"High-functioning autism" refers to individuals on the autism spectrum who can speak, read, write, and handle basic life skills independently, as defined by WebMD. However, it is important to note that even individuals with high-functioning autism face challenges in various aspects of daily life. They may struggle with social interaction, communication, and exhibit repetitive and restrictive habits.

The Challenges of High-Functioning Autism

While individuals with high-functioning autism may have average or above-average intelligence, they often have underdeveloped social skills despite their academic or job performance. Social interaction can be challenging for them, as they may struggle to understand and respond to social cues. Additionally, they may experience difficulty with emotional regulation, sensory overload, and sensory sensitivities. Many autistic individuals, including those with high-functioning autism, have sensory processing disorder, which can make noise, crowds, bright lights, strong tastes, smells, and touch overwhelming [1]. It is also important to note that anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions are common among individuals with high-functioning autism, with studies suggesting a higher prevalence of mood disorders compared to the general population.

Understanding the challenges faced by individuals with high-functioning autism is crucial for providing them with appropriate support, interventions, and understanding. With the right support and accommodations, individuals with high-functioning autism can lead fulfilling lives and make valuable contributions to society.

Diagnostic Criteria for High-Functioning Autism

In order to understand high-functioning autism, it is important to be familiar with the diagnostic criteria and the process of diagnosis. Early intervention plays a crucial role in supporting individuals with high-functioning autism.

Diagnosis Process for High-Functioning Autism

Diagnosing high-functioning autism is typically based on a comprehensive evaluation of a person's developmental history, behavior, and communication skills. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) previously provided criteria for diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), including high-functioning autism. However, in 2013, the DSM-V broadened the diagnosis to Autism Spectrum Disorder, replacing the previous subcategories such as Autistic Disorder and Asperger's Disorder.

The diagnosis of high-functioning autism is not based on specific medical tests but rather on observing a person's behavior and development over time. Professionals, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, or developmental pediatricians, conduct assessments that may include interviews with the individual and their family, as well as direct observation of the person's behavior and social interactions.

Early diagnosis is crucial for individuals with high-functioning autism, as it allows for early intervention and support. While some children may receive a formal diagnosis by the age of 2, others may not be diagnosed until later in life. It is important to note that high-functioning autism can be identified in both children and adults, and a diagnosis can be made at any age when the criteria are met.

Early Intervention for High-Functioning Autism

Early intervention plays a significant role in supporting individuals with high-functioning autism. Early diagnosis and intervention have been shown to have positive long-term effects on symptoms and skill development. Some children may show traits of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as early as 18 months old, and a formal diagnosis is typically made by the age of 2. However, it is possible for individuals to receive a diagnosis of high-functioning autism later in life.

Early intervention programs for autism aim to provide integrated developmental and behavioral interventions as soon as ASD is diagnosed or strongly suspected. These programs leverage the brain's plasticity during early childhood to optimize learning and progress. The goals of early intervention include helping children acquire basic skills typically learned in the first two years of life. Early interventions may include therapies, educational support, and family involvement to promote the best possible outcomes for individuals with high-functioning autism.

By recognizing the diagnostic criteria and understanding the importance of early intervention, individuals with high-functioning autism can receive the necessary support and resources to thrive.

Characteristics of High-Functioning Autism

High-functioning autism is a subtype of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) characterized by individuals who have average or above-average intellectual abilities but still experience challenges related to social interaction, communication, and sensory sensitivities. Let's explore the signs of high-functioning autism in both children and adults.

Signs of High-Functioning Autism in Children

Identifying high-functioning autism in children can be complex, as individuals with this condition may develop coping mechanisms that help "mask" the signs of autism, making it difficult to determine the severity of their condition [3]. However, there are several common signs to be aware of:

  • Delayed speech or language development
  • Fear or discomfort in social situations
  • Above-average intelligence or special interests
  • Difficulty with changes in routine
  • Challenges in making and maintaining friendships
  • Obsession with specific hobbies or topics
  • Sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as textures or sounds
  • Difficulties with fine motor activities

It's important to note that not all children with high-functioning autism will exhibit these signs, and the severity of the symptoms can vary. Early intervention and support services are crucial for these children to help them develop their communication, social, and adaptive skills [4].

Traits of High-Functioning Autism in Adults

High-functioning autism can continue into adulthood, and individuals with this condition may exhibit specific traits that affect their daily lives and interactions. Some common traits in adults with high-functioning autism include:

  • Discomfort with eye contact
  • Difficulty understanding social cues and non-literal language (jokes, sarcasm)
  • Anxiety in social settings
  • Adherence to strict routines and resistance to change
  • Sensitivity to sensory input (lights, sounds, textures)
  • Difficulty with transitions
  • Preference for listening rather than speaking

Adults with high-functioning autism may have developed various coping mechanisms to navigate social situations, but they may still experience challenges in understanding and connecting with others. Pursuing an official diagnosis as an adult can provide explanations for long-standing struggles and open doors to support services tailored to their specific needs [3].

Understanding the characteristics of high-functioning autism is essential for recognizing and supporting individuals with this condition. By providing appropriate interventions and accommodations, we can help individuals with high-functioning autism thrive and reach their full potential in various aspects of life.

Living with High-Functioning Autism

Living with high-functioning autism can present unique challenges, but with the right coping mechanisms, support, and treatment, individuals with high-functioning autism can lead fulfilling lives.

Coping Mechanisms for High-Functioning Autism

Individuals with high-functioning autism often develop coping mechanisms that help them navigate daily life and mask the signs of autism, making it difficult to determine the severity of their autism. These coping mechanisms can vary from person to person and may include strategies such as:

  • Routine and Structure: Establishing and maintaining a consistent routine can provide a sense of stability and predictability, which can help reduce anxiety and increase overall well-being.
  • Sensory Regulation: Managing sensory sensitivities by avoiding overwhelming environments, using sensory tools like headphones or fidget toys, and creating sensory-friendly spaces can help individuals with high-functioning autism better navigate their surroundings.
  • Social Skills Training: Engaging in social skills training programs or therapies can help individuals develop strategies for understanding social cues, building relationships, and improving communication skills.
  • Self-Care Practices: Engaging in self-care activities such as exercise, relaxation techniques, and pursuing hobbies can help reduce stress and promote overall well-being.
  • Advocacy and Self-Expression: Encouraging self-advocacy and finding outlets for self-expression, such as through art, writing, or joining autism support groups, can provide individuals with a sense of empowerment and community.

Support and Treatment for High-Functioning Autism

The support and treatment options available for individuals with high-functioning autism aim to reduce symptoms and support growth in areas such as social skills, communication, and daily living. Some of the common support and treatment options include:

  • Behavior and Communication Therapies: Therapies such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can help individuals with high-functioning autism develop and improve social, communication, and behavioral skills.
  • Family Therapies: Involving the family in therapy sessions can help improve understanding and support for the individual with high-functioning autism, strengthening familial relationships and promoting a positive environment.
  • Educational Programs: Specialized educational programs, such as individualized education plans (IEPs) and accommodations in mainstream schools, can provide tailored support and strategies to meet the unique needs of individuals with high-functioning autism.
  • Occupational and Physical Therapy: Occupational and physical therapy can help individuals with high-functioning autism develop fine motor skills, coordination, and sensory integration, improving their overall independence and quality of life.
  • Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to address specific symptoms associated with high-functioning autism, such as anxiety, depression, or attention difficulties. It is important to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the most appropriate medication approach.
  • Counseling: Various types of counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or social skills training, can provide individuals with high-functioning autism with tools to manage anxiety, develop coping strategies, and improve social interactions.

Support and treatment options for high-functioning autism should be tailored to the individual's specific needs. Working closely with healthcare professionals, therapists, educators, and support networks can provide a comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges associated with high-functioning autism and promoting overall well-being.

Debunking Functioning Labels

When discussing autism, it is important to address the topic of functioning labels. Functioning labels, such as high-functioning and low-functioning, have been used in the past to describe individuals on the autism spectrum. However, these labels are viewed as misleading and potentially harmful by the autistic community. Let's take a closer look at rethinking functioning labels and the rise of the neurodiversity movement.

Rethinking Functioning Labels

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), has moved away from using functioning labels like high-functioning and low-functioning autism. Instead, it employs three levels of autism to assess the severity of impairment and support needs [5]. This shift reflects the recognition that autism is a complex and diverse spectrum, and that each individual's experience is unique.

Functioning labels can be misleading as they may not accurately reflect an individual's abilities, support needs, social interactions, or likelihood of success in various environments, such as school or work. Autism is a spectrum disorder, and individuals may excel in certain areas while facing challenges in others. It is crucial to recognize and appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each individual without relying on broad labels that may oversimplify their experiences.

The Neurodiversity Movement

The neurodiversity movement advocates for rethinking how autism is defined, emphasizing human diversity. It aims to encourage understanding and valuing neurobiological diversity similar to other aspects of diversity like ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. This movement challenges the notion that autism is a disorder that needs to be cured or fixed. Instead, it promotes acceptance, inclusion, and support for individuals with autism.

By embracing neurodiversity, society can create environments that accommodate and celebrate the unique strengths and perspectives of individuals on the autism spectrum. It recognizes that autism is not a deficit but a different way of experiencing the world.

As we continue to learn more about autism, it is essential to move away from functioning labels and focus on understanding and supporting individuals based on their specific needs and abilities. By adopting a more inclusive and nuanced approach, we can foster a society that embraces diversity and provides equal opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum to thrive.

High-Functioning Autism in the Workplace

Individuals with high-functioning autism often face unique challenges in the workplace, particularly during the job interview process. However, despite these challenges, many individuals with high-functioning autism can excel in careers if given the opportunity. Let's explore the specific challenges faced during job interviews and the potential for success in careers for individuals with high-functioning autism.

Challenges in Job Interviews for Individuals with High-Functioning Autism

People with high-functioning autism may encounter difficulties during job interviews due to challenges related to social skills, communication, and managing behaviors and reactions [2]. These challenges can include:

  • Social Skills: Individuals with high-functioning autism may struggle with social interaction, including maintaining eye contact, understanding nonverbal cues, and engaging in small talk. These difficulties can make it challenging to establish rapport with interviewers and effectively communicate their qualifications.
  • Communication: High-functioning autism can affect verbal and nonverbal communication skills, making it challenging to express thoughts clearly, understand questions, or effectively convey their skills and experiences during the interview process.
  • Managing Behaviors: Some individuals with high-functioning autism may have difficulty managing behaviors and reactions in unfamiliar or stressful situations, such as job interviews. This can manifest as increased anxiety, sensory sensitivities, or repetitive behaviors, which may be misunderstood by interviewers.

The Potential for Success in Careers with High-Functioning Autism

Despite the challenges faced during job interviews, individuals with high-functioning autism can excel in careers if provided with the right support and accommodations. It's important to recognize that each individual is unique, and their strengths and abilities should be valued.

Many individuals with high-functioning autism possess exceptional attention to detail, strong problem-solving skills, and a unique perspective that can contribute to the workplace. In technical fields where communication skills may be less critical, individuals with high-functioning autism often thrive. Their ability to focus on tasks, maintain accuracy, and think analytically can make them valuable assets in various careers.

Employers can play a crucial role in supporting individuals with high-functioning autism by providing reasonable accommodations and fostering an inclusive work environment. Some accommodations that can benefit individuals with high-functioning autism include:

  • Structured Work Environment: Providing clear instructions, well-defined tasks, and a predictable routine can help individuals with high-functioning autism thrive in their roles.
  • Communication Support: Employers can offer communication tools such as written instructions, visual aids, or assistive technologies to facilitate effective communication.
  • Sensory Considerations: Creating a sensory-friendly workspace by minimizing noise, providing access to quiet areas, and allowing the use of sensory aids can help individuals with high-functioning autism manage sensory sensitivities.
  • Social Skills Training: Offering social skills training programs or workshops can assist individuals with high-functioning autism in navigating social interactions in the workplace.

By recognizing the unique strengths and challenges of individuals with high-functioning autism and creating a supportive work environment, employers can harness the potential of these individuals, leading to mutual success for both the employee and the organization.


[1]: https://www.verywellhealth.com/why-high-functioning-autism-is-so-challenging-259951

[2]: https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/high-functioning-autism

[3]: https://www.thrivingwellnesscenter.com/blog/highfunctioningautismchecklist

[4]: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/treatments/early-intervention

[5]: https://www.verywellhealth.com/high-and-low-functioning-autism-260599

[6]: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/high-functioning-autism