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Signs of High-Functioning Autism

7 min read

By Clarissa Vanner

  • While high-functioning autism isn’t an official diagnosis, what some consider high-functioning, would fall in the level one ASD category.
  • High-functioning autism merely means the autism symptoms are mild and the individual requires less support than someone with level 3 ASD.
  • Though the individual has some symptoms of autism, their behavior doesn’t typically affect their work or school life and relationships.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people learn, behave, communicate, and interact with others. While the condition can greatly impact an individual’s life, some people with autism can function with limited assistance. This is known as high-functioning autism.

If you think your child or loved one is showing signs of autism, it’s important to receive a proper diagnosis from a medical professional. In the meantime, here’s a more thorough understanding of what high-functioning autism is plus the key signs to look out for.

What Is High-Functioning Autism?

Psych Central explains that ASD is categorized into three levels. While high-functioning autism isn’t an official diagnosis, what some consider high-functioning, would fall in the level one category. This merely means the autism symptoms appear mild. The official term for high-functioning autism is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) level 1.

Verywell Health also points out that in the past, individuals who fit the high-functioning autism category would have likely been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. However, Asperger’s was officially removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. The disorder is now solely referred to as ASD.

Signs of High-Functioning Autism

ASD is broken down into the following three levels, based on how much support the individual needs:

  • Level 1: requires some support
  • Level 2: requires significant support
  • Level 3: requires very substantial support

As mentioned, individuals with high-functioning autism fall into the level 1 category, which Psych Central says means they can “read, write, speak, and handle daily tasks, such as eating and getting dressed independently.” Though the individual has some symptoms of autism, their behavior doesn’t typically affect their work or school life and relationships. This can sometimes make level 1 ASD hard to spot. Let’s take a look at some of the signs to watch for.

Social Challenges

One possible sign of high-functioning autism is social challenges. This may include having difficulty interacting with others. Psych Central notes that “social impairment is the greatest differentiator between high-functioning autistic individuals and neurotypical individuals.”

The individual’s social challenges may make it difficult to make friends. The source says that sometimes they may be labeled as socially awkward. Group assignments may also be challenging for the individual and they may focus a lot of their attention on themselves.

Physical Sensation Sensitivity

High-functioning autistic individuals may also be sensitive to physical sensations. This may include sensitivities to loud noises, uncomfortable clothing, and bad smells or tastes. They may also be sensitive to physical touch by another person.

Sensitivity to any of these physical sensations may lead to emotional distress, which can be stressful and disruptive to their life. That said, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says symptoms may improve if the individual learns how to regulate their behavior with the help of a professional. This can be done through applied behavioral analysis (ABA), which the source says “encourages positive behaviors and discourages negative ones.”

Emotional Sensitivity

Emotional sensitivity is another very common symptom of high-functioning autism. It’s easy to miss too because sometimes this symptom is subtle or an internal battle for the individual that not everyone can notice.

So, how can you spot emotional sensitivity? Psych Central says frustrating normal life experiences (such as spilling a drink or being cut off while driving) may cause intense emotional reactions in the individual. While these situations may be minor inconveniences for most people, they can be very upsetting for people with high-functioning autism. So upsetting that their mood may be affected or they may have difficulty concentrating for the rest of the day.

Devotion to Routines

Being consistent and having a routine can be a very good thing, but individuals with high-functioning autism may be so devoted to their routines that any disruption can cause intense frustration. This may be a key sign of level 1 ASD.

The Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) says individuals with high-functioning autism may devote an excessive amount of time to their sleep, self-care, exercise, homework, and learning routines. Deviation from their routines can be very irritating for the individual.

Repetitive or Restrictive Habits

Another sign of high-functioning autism is repetitive or restrictive habits. The ABA says repetitive habits may be related to movement. Some examples of this may include needing to line up their toys in a particular order or needing to tie and untie their shoes several times before they are content.

The source also says some individuals with high-functioning autism may develop restrictive habits that interfere with their life. For example, the person may refuse to wear any other shirt beside a t-shirt. This could be problematic if they live in colder climates. Another example is needing to stick to a specific route to school or another destination. Any disruption to this route (such as construction detours) may be incredibly frustrating for the individual.

Dislikes Change

Due to their habitual nature, people with high-functioning autism typically have a strong dislike for change. Following the same routines and engaging in the same habits (such as eating at certain times and eating the same foods for each meal) can provide comfort. Any change (big or small) can be incredibly frustrating.

The ABA notes one example of this is if a brand of one food runs out and a different brand is purchased this may cause an outburst of anger. Bigger changes like switching schools or moving houses can be challenging too.

Linguistic Differences

Individuals with ASD levels 2 and 3 may struggle with linguistics. This may include difficulty with learning to speak, building a vocabulary, and holding conversations. The ABA says individuals with high-functioning autism, on the other hand, may start talking earlier than normal or may have an impressive vocabulary.

The source also notes that another sign of high-functioning autism may be difficulty engaging with their peers. They may find conversation “boring or difficult to follow” and avoid talking to their peers altogether. Sometimes the individual may appear eccentric during conversations due to their impressive vocabulary and frequent interruptions. It’s also common for people with autism to focus on particular topics which can seem odd to other people.

Difficulty With Verbal Communication

Though individuals with high-functioning autism typically have impressive vocabularies, they may have difficulty communicating with their peers. Verywell Health says this is because people with high-functioning autism may have difficulty understanding sarcasm, metaphors, or idioms, which is known as pragmatic language.

Additionally, individuals with high-functioning autism may have difficulty speaking when they feel overwhelmed or stressed.

Anxiety and Depression

While this sign is not unique to this disorder, it is something to watch for. Verywell Health said anxiety, depression, as well as other mood disorders “often go hand in hand with HFA.”

The source says individuals with high-functioning autism are more likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder than the general public but the reason is unclear. One theory suggests autism may cause mood disorders. Another theory suggests it may be caused by the “social rejection that often comes with being autistic.” Regardless of the cause, anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders can be disabling and should always be addressed by a professional.

How Is Autism Diagnosed?

Diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be more challenging than other disorders or illnesses because there is no medical test (such as a blood test) to diagnose the disorder. That said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that doctors rely on the individual’s “developmental history and behavior to make a diagnosis.”

The source notes ttwo methods canhelp diagnose ASD. First is developmental monitoring which is an “active, ongoing process of watching a child grow.” Monitoring involves watching how your child grows and whether they meet the typical developmental milestones and skills by a certain age.

The second method is developmental screening which the source says is more formal than developmental monitoring. Screening is part of well-child visits even when there isn’t a concern for ASD. The source says screening for all children should take place during check-ups at ages 9-months, 18-months, and 30-months. Screening involves questionnaires and checklists that compare your child to other children of the same age.

How Is Autism Treated?

The CDC says diagnosing ASD as early as possible is important to ensure the individual receives the support they need to reach their full potential. If your child or loved one is showing signs of autism, contact your doctor for an evaluation.

While there is no cure for autism, there are strategies that can help improve the individual’s quality of life. Treatment also varies greatly depending on the level of ASD. Individuals with high-functioning autism typically require less support than someone with ASD level 3. Verywell Health says treatment for high-functioning autism usually involves therapy, which can help the individual “gain the skills and strategies needed to better manage the condition.”

Junior Managing Editor

Clarissa is the Junior Managing Editor of ActiveBeat. She aspires to live a healthy lifestyle by staying active and eating foods that nourish her body, but she isn't afraid to indulge in a little chocolate here and there! Clarissa loves cooking, being outdoors, and spending time with her dog. In her free time, you'll find her relaxing in her hammock or curled up on the couch reading a book.

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