Understanding High-Functioning Autism: Beyond Stereotypes and Labels
The representation of autistic individuals in film and media tends to centre its narrative on a child or an adult possessing an acute intellect, which incongruously contrasts with their ability to function independently. Often, these people are nonverbal and display their daily discomfort with intense public outbursts. See Rain Man (1988) and Mercury Rising (1998). I in no way wish to discredit the validity of such powerful stories, but I want people to know that this is not the only way autism manifests. Join us while we dive deep into high-functioning autism.
Autism is considered a ‘spectrum’ disorder “because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience.” In other words, although they may share similar traits, no two individuals experience autism the same. For example, some may have limited to no verbal ability, whereas others possess an excellent command of spoken language, surpassing the level of their neurotypical peers.
The Pitfalls of Labeling Autism
People with level 1 autism (previously known as Aspergers) are often considered ‘high functioning’ because they can function more independently and typically require less support than those with level 3 autism. These labels allow us to quickly estimate how intensely a person is affected by their autistic traits. However, reliance on such terms can lead to harmful assumptions.
Having Level 1 autism does not automatically mean the person will have a higher intelligence, exceptional talent, a high tolerance for sensory stimuli, or the ability to organise life’s demands. It is important to note that everyone’s knowledge level will differ across various intellectual and social skills. Each individual must be allowed to assess and communicate their needs, to share their version of ‘normal’ without being expected to conform to fixed expectations.
Many find the ‘autism wheel’ to be a tool that can provide a helpful illustration of an autistic person’s varying abilities. The wheel is labelled with typical symptoms of the condition and allows an autistic individual to signify the severity of their struggles in each area using colour blocks. Below is an example of how the wheel may look when filled in.
This example image was created by completing a short quiz on IDRLabs.com. The autism wheel can be filled out manually or online with online quizzes, which can use the participant’s answers to draw a demonstrative graph. If you wish to try one of these quizzes, please ensure the sources are reputable and remember that an online quiz should not be taken as proof of diagnosis.
High-functioning autism: Hiding In Plain Sight
Autism of any level is a neurological condition that affects the recipient from birth. Yet, in many cases, people with high-functioning autism do not achieve a diagnosis until adulthood or remain undiagnosed. There are many complex and layered reasons for the diagnostic delay, including a lack of societal awareness, gender and racial bias, and limited access to proper healthcare.
Drawing on personal experience, I can attest to the fact that many common factors that delay the early identification of neurodiversity are related to a lack of understanding concerning high-functioning autism.
Delays in a child’s early development can provide paediatricians with a fundamental indication of autism. However, these are not always obvious. Many children on the spectrum can effectively perform essential communication and daily tasks, demonstrating average to high intelligence in school. Their operative intelligence can easily prevent even experienced psychologists from suspecting that the child is neurodivergent. Instead, behavioural anomalies are often dismissed or misdiagnosed as anxiety or social maladjustment.
Children have yet to understand themselves and the world, so they cannot communicate their problems and needs. Therefore, being an undiagnosed autistic child can breed a lot of frustration, leading to what appear to be tantrums. Many are written off as ‘problem children’.
Personally, from a very young age, I would experience frequent panic attacks at school whenever a new subject was introduced, or I was confused by the given instructions. Struggling to breathe or produce logical thought, I would burst into tears. Of course, possessing no concept of mental diversity and its symptoms, I was humiliated for being labelled a ‘crybaby’.
From a young age, many ‘high functioning’ autistic individuals learn to hide or reduce compulsive mannerisms that are deemed socially unacceptable. Subconscious (or conscious) efforts to blend in with the majority are a behaviour known as ‘autistic masking’, which involves suppressing the disorder’s fundamental characteristics and mirroring the behaviour of their neurotypical peers. By developing a unique series of strategies to help cope with and compensate for their difficulties, an individual’s neurodiversity may be hard to identify.
Self-stimulatory behaviour, often called ‘stimming’, is repetitive body movements or noises made by a neurodivergent individual to calm themselves, cope with sensory overload, or increase focus. To avoid undesirable attention or rebuking, many autistic individuals will suppress their helpful stims, which only leads to increased frustration. This frustration may be well hidden and only expressed later in unexpected outbursts.
The Importance of Early Intervention
Many parents believe high-functioning autism does not require a formal diagnosis and fear that the label will lead to their child being bullied or treated differently by schools. Often, the guardians worry their child will feel isolated and will not have access to the same opportunities and education as neurotypical children.
Avoiding a formal diagnosis will not prevent the child from noticing they are different from their peers. If you do not acknowledge that a child’s struggles are caused by their neurodiverse needs, the individual will grow up believing they struggle because they are ‘weak’, ‘annoying’, or a ‘failure’.
This was my reality as a child. For as long as I can remember, I have known I was different and felt something ‘wrong’ with me. I experienced intense stress every day, attempting to navigate a world that made little sense to me. I didn’t understand why I seemed to find everything much more complex than my peers.
A diagnosis can help schools implement support and resources that reduce the child’s stress and aid the child’s academic career. Support can also decrease the frequency and intensity of emotional outbursts, preventing unwanted attention from young peers. Keep an eye on your child’s progress and voice any concerns you may have if your child is unnecessarily held back from performing to the best of their ability.
Our exploration of high-functioning autism has revealed the intricacies and challenges faced by individuals on the spectrum. By delving beyond stereotypes and labels, we’ve highlighted the diverse experiences within the autistic community, emphasising the need for understanding and acceptance. Early intervention is crucial in providing support and resources and fostering a sense of belonging and empowerment for those navigating neurodiversity.
As we conclude, let us remember that every individual deserves to be seen and heard, free from the constraints of societal expectations. Let’s continue to educate ourselves, advocate for inclusivity, and challenge misconceptions surrounding autism. Together, we can create a more compassionate and supportive world for all. Take action today by spreading awareness, supporting organizations dedicated to autism advocacy, and fostering inclusive community environments. Together, we can make a difference.