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What is High-Functioning Autism?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Feb 23, 2024
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High-functioning autism is not a clearly defined medical condition. It is used to describe people with definitive signs of autism, but not in the usual sense. If the degrees of autism were scaled on a basis of one to 10, the high-functioning autistic would likely be at the upper end of the scale. They may be able to engage in normal conduct in almost every area of their lives, with the exception of a few behavioral abnormalities.

For instance, they may not be able to exhibit appropriate social responses, maintain eye contact, or hold conversations. On balance, they can often attend regular classes, do household chores, have children, and otherwise behave normally. Persons with autism, including those who are high-functioning, may exhibit a wide spectrum of symptoms, and it generally varies greatly from one individual to another.

Some of the more common behaviors associated with high-functioning autism include ego-centric behavior, extreme shyness, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and what many would simply call absentmindedness. The high-functioning autistic will sometimes get lost in his own world and become oblivious to the world around him. He may not respond when spoken to because he is so absorbed in what he is thinking. It is very difficult for these individuals to function on more than one level at a time. Their ability to channel themselves so successfully into one focused task has made some researchers believe that autism might be a form of genius—some people even think that German physicist Albert Einstein was a high-functioning autistic.

People with high-functioning autism are typically diagnosed at an early age or shortly after entering school. Some individuals, however, may go their entire lives without knowing they suffer from this condition. The symptoms are so borderline that the person is often simply labeled as odd or eccentric. As children, their parents may not recognize that they are anything other than simply unusual and may never bring any of the odd behavior to a doctor’s attention.

Some experts think high-functioning autism is the same disorder as Asperger's syndrome. Unlike the typical developmental problems associated with autism, people with Asperger’s do not seem to have any problems with language development or in communicating their intelligence. They do not require constant supervision or care. As with people diagnosed as having high-functioning autism, the individuals with Asperger’s have average to above average intelligence. The two conditions are believed to be so similar that physicians are currently trying to determine if high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome is, in fact, the same disorder.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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