High-Functioning Autism: A Clinician’s Perspective

Formerly referred to by the mental health field as “Asperger’s Syndrome,” High-Functioning Autism is characterized by challenges in an individual’s social and emotional functioning that can affect the quality of their interpersonal relationships. In addition, such individuals may have difficulty communicating with others, exhibit rigid thought patterns, and restrict their interests to certain topics or hobbies. They often misperceive social cues and, as a result, do not know how to comfortably interact in social situations. 

While these behaviors do characterize High-Functioning Autistic individuals, beyond the social awkwardness, they are wonderfully unique, highly misunderstood, and complex. Traditional neuropsychological evaluations do not always capture the nuances of their personality, their strengths, or their potential. It’s a process to fully understand an individual who meets the criteria for High-Functioning Autism.

The following characteristics can make it rewarding to work with these individuals. 

  1. They cannot help being honest about what they think. You always know where you stand. When my goal is to help these clients achieve healthy and joyful relationships, their honesty is refreshing, especially in a metro area where diplomacy can often feel superficial or fake.

  2. They desire friendships and to belong in community. They may lack the social skills to be positively received by others much of the time, but this often leaves them feeling sad and lonely. It is untrue that most individuals prefer not to have relationships. If they expressed this sentiment, it is more likely because of the social discomfort, rejection, or alienation they have experienced. No one would want to continue pursuing something that has such negative and painful results.

  3. They often possess a wealth of knowledge in areas of their interest. While they do not always pause to listen or allow others to interject as they disseminate their knowledge, I can often learn fascinating and valuable information.

  4. They have the capacity for empathy. I have heard it said that individuals on the autism spectrum are incapable of empathy. It is often not true that they lack the capacity all together; rather, it's a muscle they must build. While it can be difficult for them to see the perspectives of others, it’s possible to raise their awareness.

It’s important for clinicians who decide to work with this population to understand these complexities. If there’s anything I can say with certainty from my clinical experience, it’s that working with these individuals is more of an art form than a science. 

Image by Dmitri Posudin from Pixabay