Finding Your Way Through Neurodiversity
Six signs you may have "high-functioning" autism.
Posted December 3, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- "High-functioning" autism is not a formal diagnosis. Yet people express their disorder differently and certain traits are frequently overlooked.
- Undiagnosed autism can make you feel different your whole life like you do not belong anywhere.
- You may experience intense emotions in response to seemingly insignificant events that do not make sense to others on the surface.
- You may have to accept that conventional wisdom does not apply if your authentic truth differs from the norm.
High-functioning autism is not a formal diagnosis and is not in the DSM-5. It remains a controversial term and is no longer used in many academic circles.
However, it remains useful as a concept in terms of understanding the complexities and nuances of the autistic spectrum. In my experience, there might indeed be a subset of the autism population that find they do not identify with many of the stereotypes when it comes to autism. By recognizing that individuals with autism can display a range of ability levels, we shift away from viewing this disorder as a static condition and instead considers its dynamic nature.
The term "high-functioning autism" is thus useful in highlighting that individuals may express their disorder differently and be able to access support and services tailored to their needs.
If you’ve always felt different without knowing why or if you’ve noticed that what comes naturally to you is frequently viewed as “weird” or “too much” for others, it may be helpful to take the possibility of high-functioning autism into consideration as a possible explanation.
Although there is a growing awareness about neurodiversity, there is still a strong pressure to fit in in society. This pressure can be intolerable for those with high-functioning autism who frequently struggle to accept social norms without questioning. You may gradually withdraw and isolate yourself, which, regrettably, makes you feel empty, trapped in life, and your potential stifled.
Five Signs and Symptoms of High-Functioning Autism in Adults
1. High Sensitivity and Emotional Intensity
Whether or not you have been diagnosed with autism, if you have "high-functioning autism," you may experience intense emotions in response to seemingly insignificant events that do not make sense to others on the surface (Mazefsky et al., 2013). For example, a frustrating event like a routine disruption or being cut off while driving can cause extreme irritability and make it difficult to concentrate the rest of the day.
Additionally, many individuals with "high-functioning" autism do not know how to label their emotions; you might suffer from the syndrome known as “Alexithymia,” in which you experience feelings but are unable to give them a name. Thus, your capacity to control your emotions may be impacted, and you might frequently feel out of control. (Liss et al., 2008)
2. Hypersensitivity to Sensory Input
A condition known as sensory processing disorder (SPD) affects how the brain interprets information from the senses. Studies have revealed that in both children and adults, SPD and autism often overlap (Tavassoli et al., 2014). Being sensitive to touch, being easily startled, refusing to wear or eat a certain type of clothing, being clumsy, or frequently bumping into things are a few examples of sensory integration issues.
Many people with "high-functioning" autism are oversensitive to external stimuli like sound, light, and touch. When overextended, any more stimulation can cause anxiety and even nervous breakdowns. To cope, you might avoid many social and public situations, which limits opportunities for yourself.
3. Restrictive Habits and Attachment to Routines
As a coping mechanism for the chaos and irrationality of their environment, people with ASD often struggle with change and transition and thus may become fixated on routine and repetition.
A person with high-functioning autism is fixated on consistency and abhors any deviation from his or her usual routine. Adults with high-functioning autism may fall into rigid routines, have a need for order in their environment, insist on always eating or doing the same thing, etc. They may not behave like children and throw tantrums when their routines are disrupted. However, they take great care to ensure that their environment and daily routines are planned, consistent, and organized. However, this rigidity can also lead to excessive social and professional restraint.
4. Strong Addiction to or Fixation on One Thing
You may have a strong interest or fixation on one or a few particular subjects, objects, or activities. An obsessive interest may make it hard for you to focus on anything else. You might put things off, perform poorly, or be unable to take care of yourself properly because you tend to focus too much on one passion and lose track of time. These signs could lead to a diagnosis of ADHD instead of or in addition to high-functioning autism.
You may be progressing quickly in one area while leaving everyone else behind. It becomes harder and harder to find people you can talk to without having to explain everything all the time. Even if you enjoy sharing your knowledge with others, they may not be interested in the in-depth knowledge you have to share. This can lead to you becoming even more frustrated and lonely.
Many people with high-functioning autism have found ways to channel their obsessions productively. However, interests that are too specific or often misunderstood can leave you alone, and obsessions that consume you can keep you from learning other important life skills.
5. A Chronic Feeling That You Don’t Fit In
High-functioning autism can make you feel different your whole life, like you do not belong anywhere. This feeling of being an outsider can be especially noticeable in adolescence and the early years of adulthood when you try to fit in but find that you do not belong or when you struggle to accept arbitrary social “rules” that do not make sense to you.
The sense of alienation you experience is the result of a number of factors. For starters, you interpret social cues and body language differently, making it difficult to decide when to say something or stay silent during a conversation. Sarcasm, jokes, and other forms of humor can also be interpreted differently. You also have high moral standards and tend to be brutally honest and direct, which can occasionally be misinterpreted as rudeness.
Had you received the diagnosis later in life, you may have suffered in silence. The truth is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you. It was just a mismatch between you and your environment.
6. Unusual Vocabularies
Within the autistic spectrum, speech abilities differ from person to person (Broome et al., 2022). People with high-functioning autism may come across as eccentric in conversations. Eloquence and precociousness are considered positive traits but occasionally have unfavorable effects. For example, you may have experienced rejection from peers when you were young because you spoke in an “adult” manner.
Because you lack a common language, it may be difficult for others to understand your keen sense of humor, and your adult style of speaking may lead people to think you are a “show-off.” The social lubricant that most people rely on, small talk, is probably difficult for you to enjoy. Ultimately, you may find conversations with others boring or difficult to follow, which would cause you to avoid talking to your peers.
You would be so overjoyed to find others who think intellectually on par with you that you would not want to let them go. But you may need to intentionally look for people who share your beliefs and intellectual curiosity, as you will not find them in “ready-made” communities like schools or churches.
Many individuals with high-functioning autism discover that occasionally when they seek treatment from traditional physicians and psychologists, they encounter something that is not only unhelpful but also agonizing. This is so because a lot of psychologists have been taught to view people from a neurotypical standpoint. They might attempt to evaluate and judge you based on what they are taught — health metrics calculated using the average of the population.
These “standards” for health and happiness might not apply to you if you are an outlier. Numerous of your innate, sometimes even healthy, tendencies — like sensitivity and intensity — could be pathologized.
Your counselor or psychologist may want to “fix” things that don’t need fixing while ignoring what would be beneficial to you. For instance, they might have preconceived notions about what “relationships” and a “healthy lifestyle” should entail and consider your outlier behavior to be a symptom of illness. You might wind up feeling that there is something wrong with you rather than receiving the support you need.
Finding Your Voice
High-functioning autistic individuals might frequently make an unconscious effort to hide their symptoms and modify their interests and personalities in order to blend in with neurotypical people. Internalized shame and self-hatred can be the result of years of hiding and putting on a front.
You may have to accept that conventional wisdom does not apply to you if your authentic truth differs from the norm. Even if you are frequently misunderstood, it does not imply that you are flawed or in the wrong. In a culture that prizes conformity, it can be challenging to be authentic, but it’s crucial to pay attention to your inner voice.
You have much to contribute to the world with your creativity, ability to focus, intensity, and distinctive viewpoints. But in order to share these gifts with the world, you can start by learning to fully respect yourself and accept your limitations as well as your strengths.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Bird, G., Silani, G., Brindley, R., White, S., Frith, U., & Singer, T. (2010). Empathic brain responses in insula are modulated by levels of alexithymia but not autism. Brain, 133(5), 1515-1525.
Broome, K., McCabe, P., Docking, K. et al. Speech Development Across Subgroups of Autistic Children: A Longitudinal Study. J Autism Dev Disord (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-022-05561-8
Liss, M., Mailloux, J., & Erchull, M. J. (2008). The relationships between sensory processing sensitivity, alexithymia, autism, depression, and anxiety. Personality and individual differences, 45(3), 255-259.
Mayes, S. D., & Calhoun, S. L. (2003). Relationship between Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. Learning and behavior problems in Asperger syndrome, 15-34.
Mazefsky, C. A., Herrington, J., Siegel, M., Scarpa, A., Maddox, B. B., Scahill, L., & White, S. W. (2013). The role of emotion regulation in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(7), 679-688.
Siegel, D. J., Minshew, N. J., & Goldstein, G. (1996). Wechsler IQ profiles in diagnosis of high-functioning autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 26(4), 389-406.
Tavassoli, T., Miller, L. J., Schoen, S. A., Brout, J. J., Sullivan, J., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2018). Sensory reactivity, empathizing and systemizing in autism spectrum conditions and sensory processing disorder. Developmental cognitive neuroscience, 29, 72-77.