Signs and Symptoms of High-Functioning Autism

While it is not an official medical diagnosis, “high-functioning autism” is often used to refer to people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who can speak, read, write, and manage their day-to-day lives without much assistance


Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder traditionally characterized by trouble with communication and social interactions. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Because there is such a wide range, what used to be defined as “autism” is now referred to as autism spectrum disorder. People with high-functioning autism refers to those on the mild end of the spectrum.

What Are the Levels Of Autism?

A catalog of identified conditions and disorders is maintained by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used by doctors to compare symptoms and make diagnoses. In the newest version (DSM-5, 2013) all autism-related conditions were combined under one term–ASD.

Currently, there are three recognized levels of ASD:

Level One

This is the mildest level of ASD. People who operate on this level of ASD generally have very mild symptoms that don’t interfere much with their work, school, or relationships. When people are referring to high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, they are usually referring to people with level one autism.

Level Two

People with level two autism usually require more support. Often they’ll require speech therapy, social skills training, and other counseling and therapeutic treatments to function to the best of their ability.

Level Three

Level three is the most severe form of ASD. People at this level need a lot of support. Support at this level may include full-time aides or intensive therapies. Often people with this level of autism cannot function on their own.

There is not one specific test to determine a person’s level of ASD. Instead, a psychologist or other doctor should spend a lot of time interacting with the person and observing their behaviors. This allows the medical professional to get a better idea of the person’s verbal and emotional development, social and emotional capabilities, and their nonverbal communication skills. They may also try to gauge how well the person is able to maintain or create relationships within their family or with their peers.

While ASD can be diagnosed as early as eighteen months, many people are not diagnosed until much later, which can make treatment more difficult. If you think your child may have ASD, consider making an appointment with a specialist as soon as possible. There are many options when it comes to treatment for intellectual and developmental disabilities in Little Rock.

Ten Symptoms of High-Functioning Autism

As diagnosis rates for ASD continue to rise, people are becoming more familiar with the symptoms of people on the autism spectrum. Because of this awareness, people with autism are getting the help they need to live full, productive lives rather than being labeled as “eccentric” or “socially awkward.”

As more parents and professionals learn to recognize the most common symptoms of high-functioning autism, more interventions will be made available to those with level one autism. If you notice several of these traits in your child, you may need to seek treatment for intellectual and developmental disabilities in Little Rock.

Emotional Sensitivity

Sensitivity to emotions is a common, but often overlooked, issue for people with high-functioning autism. While they can function in their day-to-day life, they struggle to control their emotions the way that neurotypical people are able to.

Many people with high-functioning autism have unusually intense emotional reactions when compared to their peers. For example, a frustrating experience like spilling coffee on their shirt or taking the wrong turn on the way to work can cause irritability and difficulty concentrating for the rest of their day.

Fixation on Particular Ideas or Subjects

Discussing the same topics over and over, playing the same song on a loop, and reading obsessively about a specific topic are all ways that autistic fixations can manifest themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with having a passion or a hobby, but these interests can become negative if they take over the individual’s life or interfere with their relationships.

On the other hand, these obsessive tendencies can lead to great things. Dan Aykroyd’s intense affinity with ghosts and the paranormal led to the creation of the hit movie Ghostbusters! And many famous mathematicians, artists, musicians, biologists, and writers with high-functioning autism have used their abilities to hyperfocus to create very successful careers.

Anthony Hopkins, Leonardo da Vinci, Tim Burton, Thomas Edison, Temple Grandin, Beethoven, Greta Thunberg, Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, Clay Marzo, Mark Twain–all of these people and many, many more were diagnosed or are believed to have had ASD. Many of them are believed to have or were diagnosed with high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s as it used to be known.

Linguistic Oddities

While children on the low-functioning level of autism usually struggle with holding conversations and building vocabulary, their counterparts on the high-functioning end of the ASD spectrum often speak much earlier and display an impressive grasp of vocabulary.

However, they often find conversations with their peers boring or hard to follow. They can come off as eccentric–their diverse vocabularies, interruptions, and focus on specific topics makes for a different kind of conversation than people are used to.

Social Difficulties

In people with high-functioning autism, interaction with their peers usually doesn’t come easily. In children and teenagers with high-functioning autism, this can present as a limited social circle, difficulty completing group work, or problems sharing toys and materials.

Difficulty Processing Physical Sensations

Many people with ASD have sensory difficulties. Certain tastes, noises, smells, or feelings can be intolerable. Large crowds and loud noises, unwanted touches, and uncomfortable clothing can lead to anxiety and emotional distress. But while these issues can be disruptive and stressful, many children with high-functioning autism can learn to regulate their behavior and responses through work with professionals.

Devotion to Routine

People with high-functioning autism typically love routines. They may carry routines through childhood to adulthood–such as reading for 15 minutes before bedtime or brushing their teeth for exactly three minutes–or they may develop their own routines. Any kind of deviation from routine, even if it’s for a good reason, can leave them feeling frustrated and anxious. They may devote a large amount of time to their routines, even to the detriment of sleep, exercise, self-care, work, or homework.

Development of Restrictive or Repetitive Habits

Repetitive habits are formed by people with high-functioning autism and become part of their routines. These habits may interfere with their day-to-day lives or what other people need them to do. Some repetitive habits are related to movement–like turning the lights on and off several times before they can leave the house. Others are restrictive habits–like a refusal to wear anything but flip flops. This could become a detriment to their health if they live somewhere with cold winter weather.

Focus On Self

Part of the reason people with high-functioning autism have trouble developing deep social relationships is an inordinate amount of focus on themselves. They may spend an excessive amount of time talking about themselves, interrupting others when they speak, and changing the subject back to themselves. This makes conversation difficult for most people.

This focus can also result in a person with high-functioning autism seeming to partake in  “selfish” activities, like pouring a drink without asking if anyone else would like one, making a snack and not sharing, or taking more than their fair share. But keep in mind that this isn’t premeditated selfishness–they genuinely have trouble perceiving the feelings of others and considering thoughts and feelings outside of their own.

Dislike of Change

Dislike of change is a hallmark of high-functioning autism. They may eat the same thing for lunch every day–in the same place, on the same plate, and in the same order. Any disruption or change can cause frustration, anxiety, and even anger in the individual. They may not deal well with friends moving, family passing away, or logos on their favorite brands being redesigned.

Unusual Movement Patterns

People with high-functioning autism sometimes exhibit unusual movement patterns like toe walking. Toe walking is when a person walks on their toes or on the balls of their feet without putting weight on other parts of the foot. This can result in foot pain, hammertoe, and bunions as well as causing shoes and socks to wear out more quickly in the front foot area. This is much more common in young children and people with musculoskeletal issues and can be trained out at a young age.

Not all people with these symptoms have high-functioning autism, but if you notice several of these symptoms together, you should talk to your doctor, psychologist, or another ASD professional.

If you’re looking for autistic child support services in Little Rock, contact Integrity Inc. at 501-406-0442. We specialize in treatment for intellectual and developmental disabilities in Little Rock, including ASD in children and adults.

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