Understanding High-Functioning Autism

Autism is a widespread condition and I have clients, friends and family who have been affected by this condition. Researching this subject and how to deal with the individuals affected can assist in coping with difficult relationships.

What is it? 

Autism is a disorder in the development of a persons’ social and communication skills. While that is a basic answer, it gives you an idea of the areas of life that ASD can affect. The range of severity will vary and how that manifest in each individual will be drastically different.
High Functioning Autism doesn’t exhibit itself easily to those that aren’t already aware of an individual’s diagnosis. The ticks, fears, social and sensory issues, along with mild communication struggles are often easy to overlook if a child is labeled high functioning. Their delay in speech and language may not be as obvious. Many people only see the current state of a child and have no idea what progress they have made in the past.

Some signs of High Functioning Autism

Delayed initial speech but functional communication as child ages.
Above average intelligence and logic at an early age.
Difficulty in social situations – inability to understand or relate to peer groups.
Lack of social comfort – seeming “mature” for their age. Not being able to understand jokes, sarcasm, humor, or typical roughhousing among peers.
Obsessive actions regarding appearance, cleanliness, fears and social situations.
Sensory issues. This applies to oral, vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile, auditory, and visual.
Shortened attention spans.
Prone to tantrums or meltdowns when overly tired or overly stimulated.
Research: Parenting Chaos
At this point in history, there is disagreement about how many people on the autism spectrum are on the high or low-end of the spectrum (or whether most people with autism are “somewhere in the middle”). It is clear, however, that the lion’s share of media attention goes to folks at the high and the low ends of the spectrum—that is, the profoundly disabled and the very high functioning.

Myth: People High Functioning Autism Are Unusually Intelligent and Successful

If the media is to believed, the high-end of the autism spectrum is peopled largely by eccentric geniuses—Bill Gates and Albert Einstein are often mentioned, along with Dan Aykroyd and Daryl Hannah—who by and large do very well indeed, though they march to the beat of their own drummer. The reality, however, is that “high functioning autistic” and “genius,” “business tycoon,” and “Hollywood star” rarely go together. In fact:
People with high functioning autism, while they may or may not be unusually intelligent, rarely have the kind of intense motivation for public success that sends a Bill Gates to find funders or an Einstein to find a publisher.
They may also have significant challenges which stand in the way of living a comfortable life, succeeding in work or romance, or achieving a sense of self-worth. Those issues are made more challenging, in part, because they surprise and upset others who don’t anticipate odd behaviors or reactions from people who “pass for normal” in many situations.
While people with more severe autism are not generally expected to just suck it up and get through difficult moments, people on the higher end of the spectrum are expected to do just that.
Lastly, people with high functioning autism are, in general, very aware of their own difficulties and extremely sensitive to others’ negative reactions.

Fact: High Functioning Autism Is Very Challenging Every Day

Here are just a few of the issues that get between people on the high-end of the autism spectrum (including those diagnosed with the now-outdated Asperger Syndrome) and personal success and happiness:
People at the higher end of the spectrum are just as susceptible as people in the middle or lower end of the spectrum to sensory dysfunctions. These include mild, moderate, or extreme sensitivity to noise, crowds, bright lights, strong tastes, smells, and touch. This means that a person who is bright, verbal, and capable may be unable to walk into a crowded restaurant, attend a movie, or cope with sensory assaults, shopping malls, stadiums, or other venues.

Social “cluelessness.”

What’s the difference between a civil greeting and a signal of romantic interest? How loud is too loud? When is okay to talk about your personal issues or interests? When is it important to stop doing what you enjoy in order to attend to another person’s needs? These are tough questions for anyone, but for a person on the high-end of the autism spectrum they can become overwhelming obstacles to social connections, employment, and romance.

Anxiety and depression. 

Anxiety, depression and other mood disorders are more common among people with high functioning autism than they are among the general population. We don’t know whether the autism causes the mood disorders, or whether the disorders are the result of social rejection and frustration—but whatever their causes, mood disorders can be disabling in themselves.
Executive functioning describes the skills we use to organize and plan our lives. They allow typical adults to plan schedules in advance, notice that the shampoo is running low, or create and follow a timeline in order to complete a long-term project. Most people with high functioning autism have compromised executive functioning skills, making it very tough to plan and manage a household, cope with minor schedule changes at school or at work, and so forth.

Emotional disregulation. 

Contrary to popular opinion, people with autism have plenty of emotions. In fact, people with autism can become far too emotional in the wrong situations. Imagine a 16-year-old bursting into tears because of a change in plans, or a grown woman melting down completely because her car won’t start. These are the types of issues that can arise for people with high functioning autism, who are capable of doing a great many things ONLY when the situation is predictable, and no obstacles arise.
Lots of people have a hard time with change, but people with high functioning autism take the issue to a whole new level. Once a pattern is established and comfortable, people with autism (by and large) want to maintain that pattern forever. If a group of friends goes out on Wednesdays for nachos, the idea of going out on Thursdays for chicken wings can throw an autistic adult into a state of anxiety or even anger.

Difficulty with following verbal communication.

A person with high functioning autism may be more than capable of doing a task—but unable to follow instructions provided. In other words, if a policeman says “stay in your car and give me your license and registration,” the person with autism may process only “stay in your car,” or only “give me your license.” The same goes for instructions given, say, at a ballroom dance class, at the doctor’s office, or by a manager in an office setting. As you can imagine, this can cause any number of issues, ranging from serious problems with the police to inadvertent mistakes at work.
As you can see, the term “high functioning” does mean what it says. But high functioning autism is not an easy or simple diagnosis to live with. For those caring for, employing, teaching, or working with people on the higher end of the spectrum, it’s important to remember that autism is autism.
Very Well Health

High functionin autism can be hard to spot; few people with HFA exhibit obvious autism-like symptoms such as rocking, flapping, or really unusual use of voice or language. This is one of many reasons why people with HFA (sometimes called mild autism or — until 2013 — Asperger syndrome) may be diagnosed as teens or adults rather than as young children.

Why Autism Can Be Hard to Diagnose

There are a number of answers to that question.  For example:

Higher intelligence and language skills may have masked certain symptoms.

The ability to do well in school, communicate effectively, and pass an I.Q test with flying colours, are all impressive — and may set parents and teachers down the wrong path when looking for reasons for a child’s unusual issues or behavior.  Even general practice pediatricians can miss signs of autism when a child is able to communicate intelligently using spoken language. In some cases, kids’ strengths carry them through early elementary school with only minor issues, but become serious concerns when schoolwork becomes more abstract, demanding, and verbal — and when social interactions become more complex.
The individual may have been born before the diagnosis of Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism was included in the diagnostic literature.
There were plenty of kids with symptoms consistent with HFA before 1988 when Asperger syndrome was added to the diagnostic manual along with other “milder” forms of autism.  These folks may or may not have received a diagnosis of something other than autism (autism would have been far too extreme a diagnosis for a high functioning individual) — and they may never have thought of seeking a new diagnosis as an adult.
The individual may have developed means to hide, manage, or overcome his or her symptoms.
People with high functioning autism are, by definition, of average or above average intelligence.  If they are told often enough to make eye contact, stop rocking, flapping, or talking about the same things over and over again — they are often able to either hide, control, or actually overcome the need to present overt symptoms.  When that happens, the obvious external signs of autism are not present, making a diagnosis very tricky indeed.
Some research suggests that women and girls are under-diagnosed with autism.
While 4 times as many boys and men are diagnosed with autism than women and girls, the reasons are not clear.  Are girls really less likely to be autistic?  Or are their behaviors (apparent shyness, discomfort with public speaking, difficulties with motor coordination, confusion over social communication in situations such as team sports) considered “feminine” rather than problematic?  Or do girls with high-functioning autism actually behave differently from boys with autism, tending to be less aggressive, more imitative, and more likely to work hard to “fit in?”  While the reasons are not well understood, it seems clear that being a female on the spectrum may make you less likely to receive a diagnosis.
Individuals from poorer and/or minority backgrounds are under-diagnosed with autism.
There seem to be two major reasons for this disparity.  The first and most obvious is that people with less money have less access to behavioral health-care — and so are less likely to be able to access services, particularly for a child who is not obviously autistic.  The second reason seems to relate to cultural differences: in some communities, the “oddness” associated with high functioning autism are not considered to be particularly problematic. And, of course, for recent immigrants, it’s not surprising to hear that their child is not fitting in perfectly with American or “First World” cultural norms!

Does your “adult-child” with Aspergers (high functioning autism) often resist your guidance?

As the parent of an adult child with Aspergers, you may have discovered that as he gets older and feels the need to assert his independence, it may be harder and harder to take advice from you. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important for our older children to learn to solve their own problems, especially as they become our adult children. Still, it’s tough to see the effectiveness of, “Because I said so,” recede into the distance.
If you see a continuing need to be involved in your child’s life as he grows into an adult, you may need to acknowledge that he is becoming his own person, and find appropriate ways to influence his decisions. This can be a real challenge.
Individuals with Aspergers often have trouble with subtle distinctions. They may think, “Adults are independent. Being independent means making my own decisions. If I take my mother’s advice, I’m not acting like an adult.” So, what do we do when we want to respect our adult child’s quest for independence and still help them over or around the obstacles he will likely face?

Are Autistic People capable of being Manipulative?

Being autistic makes you more empathetic (Sometimes), socially disabled (To some degree, almost always), and occasionally verbally impaired (Often).
Absolutely none of those make you act like a good person.
It’s more difficult for an autistic person to learn the social nuance to be particularly manipulative, but it’s a far sight from impossible.
If you feel like you’re being played, act cautious. Anyone can try to take a gamble on deceiving you, including those with a natural handicap in that department.
Higher-functioning autistic people do arguably have a mild advantage, as a matter of fact, in that they tend to learn their social habits through mimicry instead of as a natural subconscious process.
In other words, they mechanically can dissect the rules of engagement. This makes miming emotions, leading people on, and controlling them while using your gimp as a facade extremely easy for the opportunistic and craven-minded.
Nobody is incapable of being dishonest, rare developmental cases aside.
It’s good to trust others, and better to be on good terms with them. However, you should never take someone’s developmental flaws as a guarantor of their behavior.
Autistic people can also lead others on without really meaning to – often, in those examples who become manipulative, it’s very possible they just act a certain way to reap the rewards and never consider the implications of those actions. The same as normal people, really, just with the occlusion of a hazier understanding of social rules of engagement making that moral quandary easier to fall into.
So if you think someone who you know, who is autistic, is trying to control you or others – confront them. They many not realize that they do it.
And if they do, then you deserve better than to be their puppet. Feel as sympathetic as you want, but the people who you care about should care about you enough to put your best interests before their schemes.
That last bit is just a general rule, but it applies here.
None of this means that autistic people should be especially distrusted.
It just means that they work under the same rules of trust as you or anyone else does.
The following article is written by the mother of a son with Aspergers. High Functioning Autism and I am sure many can relate to this:
“There is a dark side to raising a child with these challenges. My son’s honest expressions can be downright mean. He will say that I am lazy. He will say that I don’t ever do anything. He will say that I am selfish or a hypocrite. Of course, he is a teenager and I am sure from his narrow perspective what he says is truth.
Meltdowns are more frequent now than in the past. The physicality associated with his meltdowns now reminds me of when he was 3, more than when he was 10. These meltdowns are more disturbing and scary in the body of a 5’11” young man than they were in a small child. The glimmers of the sweet boy I remember are few and far between.
There are a lot of aspects of life that we as humans do not include in the stories we pass down. We don’t talk about the messier and darker aspects of common life occurrences. A great example is our tendency to remain silent on the terrifying nature of postpartum depression and psychosis. We don’t want to admit that even the most joyful parts of life can come with a dark lining.
As a parent of an Aspergers child, I live in a strange world. Strangers do not understand and even from friends and family there can be a lot of judgment. I have been told that I am not consistent enough with my son. I have been told that I am not disciplined enough. Even when there is no overt comment, there is the change in body language, tone of voice and the distancing by people who are affronted by my son.
On the other hand, my son judges me as inadequate, unfair, lazy and hypocritical. He expresses hatred for the help that I sacrifice to give him. I stand in the middle making the decisions as best I know how. This is an emotionally draining position.
My NT son sees all of this and so he asks if I regret having my Aspergers Son.
“No!” I responded without hesitation, “Raising him is challenging and there are times that he can be such a jerk but I have learned so much about myself and life through this process. I have learned to look beyond the external and set aside a lot of my preconceived judgments. I have learned to make my decisions based on who I am and who I want to be, not based on what that decision will get from others in the way of approval, acceptance, etc. It has made me so much stronger. I am proud of the person I have become and if this is the road that it took to become this person, well that is fine. I love him because he is my son, not because of what he can give me and I believe that he is an amazing person traveling his own tough road.”
That statement reflects the decision I have made. I don’t always feel the feelings that would inspire that statement therefore I don’t despise the mother that said she hated her son. I am thankful that my NT son didn’t ask me 20 minutes earlier. I don’t know that I would have regained my balance enough to answer the way I did. Just because I don’t act on the dark moments doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
My Aspergers son is mismatched to the world we live in. It seemed that My son is the round peg to the outside world’s square hole. I thought I was accepting this fact.
I have realized that I my acceptance was conditional on a belief that I could fill in the gaps between the outside expectation and my son’s reality. I believed I could make the world accept my son and acknowledge his successes. I had a distorted perception of who I needed to be in my son’s life.
I can never do or be enough to make my son and the typical world’s expectations mesh. Accepting my limitations, opened a new path. Instead of seeing the world as rigid, I saw flexibility. As I expanded my view beyond the world of the public school structure, I could see the endless variations that our world allows. My role is to guide my son as he creates his path in this world and finds his purpose.
My Aspergers-son is an important part of my life, but he is not my whole life. I did not cease to exist when he was born. Additionally, there are other small lives in my care. The loudest need cannot drown out the other needs. My son and my typical children learn from how I live. How can I tell my son that I believe that he can be an independent adult and then do everything for him?
When I give my focus to the moment at hand, I honor all the parts of my life. My time with my husband is for him alone. My time with each of my children is sacred and preserved. The time I set aside for caring for myself is spent doing ONLY that. This is a practice I have yet to perfect but the practice alone has increased my self-awareness and increase the balance between the various aspects of my life.”
Asperger’s Mum.
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4 thoughts on “Understanding High-Functioning Autism

    • Knowledge on this is needed as there are many infants considered a little different and some parents do not always realize that their child is in fact autistic especially if the condition is not severe. Thank you for your comment 🙂 x

      Liked by 1 person

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