High Functioning Autism

More than what meets the eyes

High functioning autism is frequently overlooked and misdiagnosed. 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 for your differences.

You are regarded as “high functioning” for a reason, for better or worse. You might be able to lead relatively normal lives, achieve professional success, and keep your relationships intact. But that doesn’t mean the difficulties of having autism aren’t there.

If you are unaware that you have high functioning autism, you may have spent the majority of your early years adjusting to society and masking your difficulties to the point where even you are unaware that you are neuro-atypical.

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.

However, it does not have to be this way.

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” — Judy Garland

High Functioning Autism: What is it?

A person with high functioning autism is likely vocally communicative, aware of social norms, and able to survive (though perhaps not ‘thrive’) in everyday environments. On the outside, they seem “normal.” Many people with high functioning autism are also highly intelligent, which enables them to decipher “social clues” even when certain social and cultural norms are not logical to them.

High-functioning autism is not a recognized medical diagnosis, and it is unclear whether this term accurately describes a subset of autistic people or if it serves to discourage them from getting the necessary help. Some people think it doesn’t even exist. Although this phrase is often criticised in many academic and professional contexts, it can still be helpful for our discussion and understanding.

The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”
― Albert Einstein

A mind giftedly different,
Within every heart a dissonant rift;
They forge their way through life’s toughest days,
Living with a hidden diagnosis made.
Faces filled with confusion and false assumptions;
Their genuine hearts long for simple acceptance.
Autism’s misunderstood complexities are immense,
But its individuals deserve compassion and grace.

Signs and Symptoms of High Functioning Autism in Adults

High Sensitivity and Emotional Intensity

Whether or not you have been diagnosed, 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. 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.

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. If you have high functioning autism, you might find it challenging to block out all the sensory data and are constantly being stimulated. 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.

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. These behavioral fixations are referred to as restrictive and repetitive behaviors (RRBs). In many people with autism, restrictive and repetitive behaviors (RRBs) may be more stereotypical, such as rocking or making a certain sound repeatedly.

In high-functioning autism, repetitive behaviors can take many different forms. 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. They do, however, 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.

Obsessive-compulsive tendencies can lead to confusion between autism diagnoses and other conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). Fixation on order, perfectionism, and control over self and others are features of OCPD (not to be confused with OCD). However, OCPD sufferers are more likely to impose their strictness and standards on others, and they can seem quite demanding and critical. In contrast, people with high functioning autism tend to focus more on themselves and place more emphasis on their own routines and rituals. Perfectionism is another trait that is typical of OCPD but does not always occur in autism.

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. Someone obsessed with math or music might use that obsession to become an authority in that field. Others might turn their interests into works of art or books. 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.

A Chronic Feeling That You Don’t Fit in

Undiagnosed 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. Because of all these factors, you may find it challenging to integrate into social groups. 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.

Unusal Vocabularies and use of Language

Children who function less well on the autism spectrum typically have problems with language development. On the other hand, children who are on the higher functioning end of the spectrum typically begin speaking much earlier than the norm and have impressive vocabularies. Because of their frequent interruptions or narrow focus, 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.

“Just remember this, Emma — not every Jell-O salad turns out perfect. But it can still taste real good.”
― Elizabeth Atkinson

She struggles to process the world in bloom
Even though it sets her apart from the room
But don’t be fooled by the mask she wears
It often serves to conceal all of her fears

High functioning autism and giftedness

Intense curiosity, sensitivity, and overexcitability are just a few of the characteristics that distinguish highly gifted people from average people. While only a small percentage of the highly gifted are considered “twice exceptional,” i.e., have both giftedness and talent and a commonly recognized neurodiverse trait (such as ADHD, autism, learning disability, etc.), an even smaller percentage are considered both gifted and have an autism diagnosis.

A growing body of research suggests that there may be a stronger link between autism and giftedness than previously thought. This is likely because many highly gifted autistic individuals have above-average processing and working memory skills. These cognitive abilities may help mitigate some of the difficulties caused by autism, and may be the reason that many people with high functioning autism tend to hide their symptoms until much later in life.

Most experts believe that a broader spectrum of characteristics should be assessed when it comes to giftedness, ranging from cognitive flexibility to personality traits. Some people define giftedness solely in terms of a IQ assessment (e.g., strong sense of justice). On the other hand, social and communication deficits are used to diagnose autism.

Numerous autistic traits, such as rigid thought processes and difficulty interacting with others, are also present in many gifted children. A gifted and talented student may exhibit some ASD-like behaviors, such as extreme interest in a particular subject. However, a thorough investigation may show that giftedness, not ASD, is the better explanation for these atypical behaviors.

It can be challenging for someone who is both gifted and autistic because they may not fit into either category. It can be difficult to get the right kind of support and services or to find peers who can relate to them.

Myths about High Functioning Autism

Myth: People with high-functioning autism have no empathy

For many years, research has claimed that autistic people “lack empathy.” However, a number of studies and anecdotal evidence have recently sparked heated debates about this notion. Unfortunately, the notion that people with autism lack empathy continues to influence the way society perceives neurodiversity.

Ironically, some autistic individuals exhibit hyper-empathy, or heightened sensitivity to the feelings of others. They are able to perceive subtle changes in body language and facial expressions that most people would miss.

High-functioning autistic people do not lack empathy, they may just have a hard time communicating their feelings (Stroth et al., 2019), women with high-functioning ASD have the same neural networks for empathy as neurotypical people, suggesting that their ability to share the emotions of others is not inherently impaired. However, high-functioning autistic individuals may not be recognized for their empathic traits because they experience and express their empathy differently. Although they have a great deal of empathy, they do not express it through their actions or words. Other people with high-functioning autism may approach empathy intellectually and express their concern for others with logic and reason.

In fact, many high-functioning autistic people are passionate about the issues they care about. They use their empathy and altruistic drive to advocate for environmental protection, animal rights, human rights, and other international and humanitarian issues.

Myth: Individuals with high functioning autism don’t experience or communicate emotions

In addition to lack of empathy, it is a common misconception that people with high-functioning autism cannot feel or express emotions. This is absolutely not true.

Actually, people with high-functioning autism profiles appear to be more sensitive to a range of emotions than the general population, such as fear, anger, and happiness. They may appear emotionless because they show less emotion externally or because their expression does not match their internal feelings. When happy or excited, a person with high-functioning autism may avoid eye contact. This is not to say that they do not feel these emotions.

In addition, many people with high-functioning autism have suffered rejection or bullying from peers in the past, which makes it difficult for them to open up to others, feel comfortable around them, or express their feelings.

It is important to remember that each person with high-functioning autism is unique and exhibits specific symptoms and behaviors. Just because one person on the autism spectrum expresses themselves in a certain way does not mean that this is the case for everyone on the spectrum.

Myth: Those with autism spectrum disorders don’t require or desire social interactions

It is a common misconception that people with autism spectrum disorders do not want to interact with others or form relationships. In reality, many people with high-functioning autism enjoy social interaction and seek lasting relationships.

Like all people, neurotypical people want to be respected and understood just as they are. Even if you prefer to be alone and are an introvert, relationships can be nurturing for you. However, you may find it challenging to make the healthy, confident, and explicit attempts to find the human contact you need

For people with high-functioning autism, who typically have the language and cognitive skills to engage in social interactions but experience social exclusion on the inside, the struggle with interpersonal relationships is particularly acute. They are often perceived as unusual or “eccentric,” but not as a natural member of the “in-group.” Many people with high-functioning autism have developed a strong sense of exclusion, misinterpretation, and rejection through thier life experience.

Being high functioning, you often ‘pass’ as normal, but something does not feel right inside. You may find it difficult to maintain patience in social situations because few people share your intellectual rigor, special interests, or unique sense of humor.

Myth: Savant skills are present in everyone with ASD.

One in ten autistic people, according to a recent study, possessed savant skills (Treffert, 2008). Higher-functioning autistic people frequently exhibit these special and distinctive skills. However, it is unclear why some people with ASD develop these skills while others do not.

Savant talents are more common in people with ASD who are intelligent, but most high-functioning autistic people don’t have them. Please remember that even if you do not have extraordinary abilities that draw special attention, you have certain skills that would enable you to make significant contributions to the world.

Myth: Creativity and imagination are absent in those with high functioning autism.

This is a widespread misconception about autistic people. Contrary to popular belief, however, individuals with high functioning autism are frequently extremely creative and have imaginations that are more vivid than average. Many autistic visual artists, in particular, have a high level of skill due to their exceptional memory and capacity to painstakingly create accurate representations of images. Studies have also discovered that people with autism display an exceptionally high level of originality in their creative work (Pennisi et al., 2021). Penny Spikins, an archaeologist, proposed that our art scene was revolutionized by autistic people’s attention to detail. Her research adds to the mounting evidence that people with autistic traits played a critical role in human evolutions.

High-functioning autism in women

In general, males are more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than females; the sex ratio ranges from 4:1 to 2.0–2.6:1. (Rynkiewicz, 2019). Because their difficulties are often misdiagnosed or completely ignored, autism is much more likely to go unnoticed in women (Lai and Baron-Cohen 2015). The pressure to conform, bias among clinicians, and differences in social and communication skills between autistic boys and girls are some of the causes. Unfortunately, a delayed diagnosis can seriously affect an autistic person’s ability to get the right kind of support.

Many autistic girls become aware of their difference at a young age, although the warning signs are often ignored. They may not have many friends and prefer solitude to social gatherings. They do not seem to fit in with peers because they have very specialized or niche interests. When it comes to niche interests, autistic girls are more likely to be into subjects such as psychology that allow them to “mask” themselves in society

Research has shown that depression and anxiety are common in girls with ASD (40%). In contrast, the most common comorbidities in boys are ADHD (47%) and oppositional defiant behavior (33%) (Agnieszka and ucka 2018). In addition, sleep problems are much more common in girls with ASD (80%) than in boys (44%). This may indicate that girls often internalize their anger and stress, which can lead to symptoms such as depression and sleep problems. Boys, on the other hand, tend to externalize their emotions, resulting in oppositional behaviors. These tendencies are also the reason why girls are diagnosed much later in life and have had to spend most of their early years hiding their difficulties.

Many autistic girls have camouflaged all their lives without knowing. One can camouflage by changing one’s appearance, actions, and thought patterns to more closely resemble neurotypical peers. For autistic girls, this often means suppressing their innate tendencies and trying to appear more “normal”. This can be mentally and emotionally exhausting for them and make them feel extremely alone. No one is aware of their suffering because they are able to go about their daily lives as usual and participate in “normal” activities. Unfortunately, sometimes people lose touch with who they are after living in their “persona” for so long and in so many different aspects of their lives. This leads to a lingering sense of loneliness and identity confusion.

High Functioning Autism and the Highly Sensitive Person

Being a highly sensitive person and having high-functioning autism are both examples of neurodiversity.

Being highly sensitive and having autism are innate traits that cannot be changed.

A highly sensitive person typically exhibits the following traits: • a deeper capacity for noticing subtleties in their environment; • a greater emotional reactivity to both positive and negative information; and • a tendency to become overstimulated more easily.

The sensory processing experiences of autistic and highly sensitive people share a lot in common, especially their sensitivity to sensory input, but this does not mean the two populations are completely interchangeable.

Currently, it’s estimated that 2% of people suffer from autism. In contrast, 20% of the population is highly sensitive, according to Elaine Aron’s research.

Although sensory processing issues is the main trait that both autism and high sensitivity share, there are differences in how this trait manifests itself. In contrast to people who are extremely sensitive, autistic people, for instance, may show either hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input, both, or neither at all.

Individuals with heightened sensitivity might not exhibit the repetitive behaviors and interests that characterize autism.

Additionally, those with autism may be overly sensitive to some stimuli or undersensitive to others, in contrast to those with high sensitivity, who are typically overstimulated by most sensory input.

Ultimately, every highly sensitive person and person on the autism spectrum is different and sees the world in a different way.

People with high functioning autism spectrum disorders are very much misunderstood.

It can be challenging for neurotypical people to express empathy or sympathy in a society where people with autism are frequently misunderstood. Many times, well-intentioned individuals will say things like, “I’m sensitive to sound too,” or “I have rigid routines too,” in an effort to demonstrate solidarity.

These assertions frequently fall short, though, because they don’t take into account the particular difficulties you encounter as an autistic person. For instance, while many neurotypical people may be sensitive to certain sounds, they are typically able to block out distractions and concentrate on their current tasks. Contrarily, individuals with autism might not be able to tune out distracting noises, making daily tasks extremely challenging. They are not intentionally being “difficult.” It is a genuine neurological constraint.

As a result, when neurotypicals attempt to empathize with autistic people, it occasionally only serves to emphasize their differences. Despite their best intentions, their attempts to empathise frequently come across as patronizing.

When you are neurotypical, even the places and people who are supposed to be supportive can cause you pain and injury.

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. You might wind up feeling that there is something wrong with you rather than receiving the support you need. Although these practitioners might not be trying to intentionally harm you, the outcome is the same.

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.

It is possible that you do not fit into society as a whole, which can be painful. But the answer is not to completely give up your natural self; rather, it is to discover an authentic way to exist in the world.

Of course, some aspects of conventional psychotherapy may also be helpful to you. Neuro-atypical individuals can benefit greatly from certain theories and skills, such as emotion regulations, theories of temperament and typology, and therapeutic models that value human diversity.

Finding a professional who is willing and able to accept you as you are, someone who won’t try to change your fundamental nature or force you into a mold that doesn’t fit you, is crucial if you are neuro-atypical. 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.

“It’s like my identity’s an orbit that I’ve strayed far away from.” — Haruki Murakami

As everyone else is taken, be you.

High-functioning autistic individuals 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. I hope you are aware that the universe made you the way you are for a reason. You have so 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 must learn to fully respect yourself and accept your flaws as well as your strengths.

Only you know who you really are in a world that is constantly trying to tell you who you should be. You are the only one who truly understands what makes you happy and what doesn’t. Yes, it takes a lot of courage to accept that you are somehow “different” and to defend yourself against those who criticize, judge, and refuse to understand. But the approval of everyone is not necessary. It is more important that you take a stand for yourself and surround yourself with people who respect and understand you. Even if the rest of the world thinks of you as “this or that,” if you can fortify your mind and learn to always be your own champion, you will stay unharmed. Be yourself; everyone else is taken, as Oscar Wilde once said.

High Functioning Autism — Eggshell Therapy by Imi Lo

Originally published on Eggshell Therapy’s Website

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Imi Lo (Eggshell Therapy and Coaching)

Imi works with intense, highly sensitive and gifted people. More at Eggshell Therapy and Coaching: eggshelltherapy.com/about-imi, or imiloimilo.com