High Functioning Autism - What's it Like?

Some people are diagnosed with high-functioning autism. They're keen intelligence and linguistic competency often mask other limitations such as lack of sociability and emotional problems.
High Functioning Autism - What's it Like?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 20 October, 2022

A little over a decade ago, Anthony Hopkins received a diagnosis that didn’t surprise him too much. The doctors told him he has Asperger’s syndrome. This means he falls within the spectrum of high-functioning autism. In his own words, having high-functioning autism is an advantage. Why? Because his memory is great and he tends to analyze and take apart the characters he plays.

Many more celebrities may have been on the autism spectrum disorder, such as Albert Einstein, Tim Burton, Bill Gates, and Steven Spielberg. With these highly creative people as a reference, you might think that having high-functioning autism is either a blessing or a stroke of luck.

However, don’t be fooled by appearances. This is because many of these people stand out in their field, be it artistic, technical, or scientific. But they often have many limitations at a social level and, above all, at an emotional level. These difficulties are often a source of limitations and social follies.

Anthony Hopkins admits that he had to deal with anger and his clear difficulty in connecting with people during a good part of his life. In fact, he had problems with alcoholism. Nowadays, he finds solace in music and painting. They help him be in harmony with his emotional universe.

As striking as it may seem, scientists still need to learn a lot about autism. More importantly, humanity still lacks resources and measures for early diagnosis, especially in cases where the symptoms aren’t so obvious.

Albert Einstein listening intently.

Characteristics of people with high-functioning autism

Most people with high-functioning autism receive the diagnosis as adults. This might be because they tend to have a keen intelligence that allows them to overcome difficulties.

However, their families and their social environment suffer certain limitations. Thus, they tend to attribute such deficiencies to their personality. Thus, they rarely suspect that autism spectrum disorder is behind their behavior. Continue reading to find out more about what people with high-functioning autism are like.

Greater verbal reasoning ability and spatial skills

As we mentioned above, people with high-functioning autism can easily express themselves. They speak, reason, and communicate effectively and skillfully.

A remarkable characteristic is that not only is their IQ above average, but their competence in spatial intelligence attracts attention. This is because it translates into an ability to imagine and visualize. They can distinguish different objects of various dimensions. Also, they can transform concepts and modify and manipulate their data.

Insatiable curiosity

High-functioning autistic people are curious and have many interests. They focus on specific areas and almost become obsessed with them. Also, they constantly look for information. They ask, investigate, and devote a lot of their time to their particular interests.

A man and a boy playing chess.

Social limitations

In spite of their intellectual competence, there’s something that limits these people: social skills. They’re not good at reading social situations and are often lost in them.

They find it hard to connect with other people and shy away from eye contact. They feel different and prefer to be alone. During interactions, they’d rather debate than have a relaxed conversation where double meaning might prevail.

Anxiety problems

Unfortunately, high-functioning autistic children are diagnosed as hyperactive. These are the restless children who touch everything and ask constant questions. Studies such as this one conducted by Dr. Alinda Gilliot at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom point out something remarkable.

They say that people with high-functioning autism often have anxiety problems and even obsessive-compulsive disorders. They also have a harder time managing their emotions.

High-functioning autism and oxytocin

As with most neurological conditions, the autism spectrum is a complex combination. Its characteristics comprise a different way of approaching reality. For starters, some forms are so severe they can’t even communicate effectively.

There are other instances in which Asperger’s syndrome manifests at its highest level. There might be physical, mental, or motor disabilities in people with savant syndrome, but they usually have an exceptional ability for art and mathematics.

What about high-functioning autism? Why do some define it as mild autism while others define it as Asperger’s syndrome? This category isn’t officially a part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). But it’s an undeniable reality.

Some people reach adulthood before they learn they’re autistic. It’s then when they understand the reason for their social and emotional limitations. As a side note, there’s some interesting therapeutic research going on right now on the subject. For instance, the United States National Institute of Mental Health discovered that oxytocin improves the social behavior of people with high-functioning autism.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Andari, E., Duhamel, JR, Zalla, T., Herbrecht, E., Leboyer, M. y Sirigu, A. (2010). Promover el comportamiento social con oxitocina en trastornos del espectro autista de alto funcionamiento. Actas de la Academia Nacional de Ciencias de los Estados Unidos de América , 107 (9), 4389–4394. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.091024910
  • Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders31(1), 5–17. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005653411471
  • Gillott, A., Furniss, F., & Walter, A. (2001). Anxiety in high-functioning children with autism. Autism5(3), 277–286. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361301005003005

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.