Is 'high functioning' autism simply a different way of perceiving and relating to people?

That remains to be seen, is the short answer here (and it's certainly an interesting idea). Some people do believe that High-Functioning Autism (HFA) is indeed nothing more than a “different way of thinking” (i.e., a variation of "normal"). This notion is quite believable due to the fact that everyone has some characteristics of the "disorder." All the traits that typify HFA - and Asperger's - can be found in varying degrees in the “typical” population.

For example, collecting objects (rocks, stamps, old glass bottles, etc.) are socially accepted hobbies; individuals differ in their levels of skill in social interaction and in their ability to read nonverbal social cues; people who are capable and independent as grown-ups have special interests that they pursue with marked enthusiasm; and, there is an equally wide distribution in motor skills.

As with any disorder identifiable only from a pattern of “abnormal” behavior (with each trait varying in degrees of severity), it is possible to find numerous individuals on the borderlines of Asperger’s and HFA whose diagnosis is particularly difficult. While the usual case can be recognized with ease by professionals with experience in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorders, in practice, the disorder blends into eccentric normality and into certain other clinical pictures. Until more is known about the underlying mechanism at play, it should be accepted that no precise cut-off points can be defined. 

As an experiment, take a moment to scan through the following traits associated with Asperger’s and HFA (count the number of traits that apply to you)...

Social traits of Asperger’s and HFA include:
  1. Abrupt and strong expression of likes and dislikes
  2. Apparent absence of relaxation, recreational, or “time out” activities
  3. Bizarre sense of humor (often stemming from a “private” internal thread of humor being inserted in public conversation without preparation or warming others up to the reason for the “punchline”)
  4. Bluntness in emotional expression
  5. Constant anxiety about performance and acceptance, despite recognition and commendation
  6. Difficulty in accepting criticism or correction
  7. Difficulty in distinguishing between acquaintance and friendship
  8. Difficulty in forming friendships and intimate relationships
  9. Difficulty in offering correction or criticism without appearing harsh, pedantic or insensitive
  10. Difficulty in perceiving and applying unwritten social rules or protocols
  11. Difficulty judging others’ personal space
  12. Difficulty with adopting a social mask to obscure real feelings, moods, reactions
  13. Difficulty with reciprocal displays of pleasantries and greetings
  14. Discomfort manipulating or “playing games” with others
  15. Excessive talk
  16. Failure to distinguish between private and public personal care habits (e.g., brushing, public attention to skin problems, nose picking, teeth picking, ear canal cleaning, clothing arrangement)
  17. Flash temper
  18. Flat affect
  19. Immature manners
  20. Known for single-mindedness
  21. Lack of trust in others
  22. Limited by intensely pursued interests
  23. Limited clothing preference (e.g., discomfort with formal attire or uniforms)
  24. Low or no conversational participation in group meetings or conferences
  25. Low to medium level of paranoia
  26. Low to no apparent sense of humor
  27. Often perceived as “being in their own world”
  28. Pouting frequently
  29. Preference for bland or bare environments in living arrangements
  30. Problems expressing empathy or comfort to/with others (e.g., sadness, condolence, congratulations)
  31. Rigid adherence to rules and social conventions where flexibility is desirable
  32. Ruminating (i.e., fixating on bad experiences with people or events for an inordinate length of time)
  33. Scrupulous honesty, often expressed in an apparently disarming or inappropriate manner or setting
  34. Serious all the time
  35. Shyness
  36. Social isolation and intense concern for privacy
  37. Tantrums
  38. Unmodulated reaction in being manipulated, patronized, or “handled” by others
  1. Anxiety
  2. Bad or unusual personal hygiene
  3. Balance difficulties
  4. Clumsiness
  5. Depression
  6. Difficulty expressing anger (i.e., either excessive or “bottled up”)
  7. Difficulty in judging distances, height, depth
  8. Difficulty in recognizing others’ faces (i.e., prosopagnosia)
  9. Difficulty with initiating or maintaining eye contact
  10. Elevated voice volume during periods of stress and frustration
  11. Flat or monotone vocal expression (i.e., limited range of inflection)
  12. Gross or fine motor coordination problems
  13. Low apparent sexual interest
  14. Nail-biting
  15. Self-injurious or disfiguring behaviors
  16. Sleep difficulties
  17. Stims (i.e., self-stimulatory behavior serving to reduce anxiety, stress, or to express pleasure)
  18. Strong food preferences and aversions
  19. Strong sensory sensitivities (e.g., touch and tactile sensations, sounds, lighting and colors, odors, taste
  20. Unusual and rigidly adhered to eating behaviors
  21. Unusual gait, stance, posture
  22. Verbosity

Cognitive traits of Asperger’s and HFA include:
  1. An apparent lack of “common sense”
  2. Compelling need to finish one task completely before starting another
  3. Concrete thinking
  4. Dependence on step-by-step learning procedures (note: disorientation occurs when a step is assumed, deleted, or otherwise overlooked in instruction)
  5. Difficulty in assessing cause and effect relationships (e.g., behaviors and consequences)
  6. Difficulty in assessing relative importance of details (an aspect of the trees/forest problem)
  7. Difficulty in drawing relationships between an activity or event and ideas
  8. Difficulty in estimating time to complete tasks
  9. Difficulty in expressing emotions
  10. Difficulty in generalizing
  11. Difficulty in imagining others’ thoughts in a similar or identical event or circumstance that are different from one’s own (“theory of mind” issues)
  12. Difficulty in interpreting meaning to others’ activities
  13. Difficulty in learning self-monitoring techniques
  14. Difficulty in understanding rules for games of social entertainment
  15. Difficulty with organizing and sequencing (i.e., planning and execution; successful performance of tasks in a logical order)
  16. Disinclination to produce expected results in an orthodox manner
  17. Distractibility due to focus on external or internal sensations, thoughts, and/or sensory input (e.g., appearing to be in a world of one’s own or day-dreaming)
  18. Exquisite attention to detail, principally visual, or details which can be visualized (“thinking in pictures”) or cognitive details (often those learned by rote)
  19. Extreme reaction to changes in routine, surroundings, people
  20. Generalized confusion during periods of stress
  21. Impulsiveness
  22. Insensitivity to the non-verbal cues of others (e.g., stance, posture, facial expressions)
  23. Interpreting words and phrases literally (e.g., problem with colloquialisms, clich├ęs, neologism, turns of phrase, common humorous expressions)
  24. Literal interpretation of instructions (e.g., failure to read between the lines)
  25. Low understanding of the reciprocal rules of conversation (e.g., interrupting, dominating, minimum participation, difficult in shifting topics, problem with initiating or terminating conversation, subject perseveration)
  26. Mental shutdown response to conflicting demands and multi-tasking
  27. Missing or misconstruing others’ agendas, priorities, preferences
  28. Perseveration best characterized by the term “bulldog tenacity”
  29. Poor judgment of when a task is finished (often attributable to perfectionism or an apparent unwillingness to follow differential standards for quality)
  30. Preference for repetitive, often simple routines
  31. Preference for visually oriented instruction and training
  32. Psychometric testing shows great deviance between verbal and performance results
  33. Rage, tantrum, shutdown, self-isolating reactions appearing “out of nowhere”
  34. Relaxation techniques and developing recreational “release” interest may require formal instruction
  35. Resistance to or failure to respond to talk therapy
  36. Rigid adherence to rules and routines
  37. Stilted, pedantic conversational style (“the little professor” concept)
  38. Substantial hidden self-anger, anger towards others, and resentment
  39. Susceptibility to distraction
  1. Avoids socializing or small talk, on and off the job
  2. Deliberate withholding of peak performance due to belief that one’s best efforts may remain unrecognized, unrewarded, or appropriated by others
  3. Difficult in starting project
  4. Difficult with unstructured time
  5. Difficulty in accepting compliments, often responding with quizzical or self-deprecatory language
  6. Difficulty in handling relationships with authority figures
  7. Difficulty in negotiating either in conflict situations or as a self-advocate
  8. Difficulty with “teamwork”
  9. Difficulty with writing and reports
  10. Discomfort with competition
  11. Excessive questions
  12. Great concern about order and appearance of personal work area
  13. Intense pride in expertise or performance, often perceived by others as “flouting behavior”
  14. Low motivation to perform tasks of no immediate personal interest
  15. Low sensitivity to risks in the environment to self and/or others
  16. Often viewed as vulnerable or less able to resist harassment and badgering by others
  17. Out-of-scale reactions to losing
  18. Oversight or forgetting of tasks without formal reminders (e.g., lists or schedules)
  19. Perfectionism
  20. Punctual and conscientious
  21. Reliance on internal speech process to “talk” oneself through a task or procedure
  22. Reluctance to accept positions of authority or supervision
  23. Reluctance to ask for help or seek comfort
  24. Sarcasm, negativism, criticism
  25. Slow performance
  26. Stress, frustration and anger reaction to interruptions
  27. Strong desire to coach or mentor newcomers
  28. Tendency to “lose it” during sensory overload, multitask demands, or when contradictory and confusing priorities have been set
  29. Very low level of assertiveness

If you were honest with yourself, you found that many of the traits listed above directly apply to you. Does that mean you are technically located somewhere on the autism spectrum? Some will argue that the answer to that question is a profound “yes.” Also, many professionals are now noticing that the younger population (approximately ages 5 – 25) is becoming more “autistic-like” due to their significant obsession with digital devices (e.g., iPhones, iPads, computers, etc.).

These young people are literally (a) living in an altered reality (i.e., digital rather than real life experience), (b) spending inordinate amounts of time with their “special interest,” and (c) engaging in far fewer face-to-face social interactions – all of which are considered autistic traits. So, is autism on the rise, or are there simply more “normal” people engaging in “autistic-like” behavior (in the higher-functioning form)?

To complicate the matter of coming to an accurate diagnosis even further, there is the issue of “differential diagnosis.” For example, the lack of empathy, single-mindedness, odd communication, social isolation and over-sensitivity of individuals with Asperger’s and HFA are features that are also included in the definitions of Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD).

To demonstrate this point, I had a client (19 year-old male) diagnosed with SPD who had no friends at college, he was odd and awkward in social interaction, always had difficulty with speech, never took part in rough games, was oversensitive, and very unhappy being away from home. He thought-out incredible digital inventions and, together with his younger brother, invented a detailed imaginary world. Sounds like Asperger’s – doesn’t it?

There is no question that HFA and Asperger’s can be viewed as a form of Schizoid Personality; however, the question is whether this grouping is of any value. The capacity to withdraw into an inner world of one's own special interests is available in a greater or lesser measure to everyone. This skill MUST be present in those who are highly creative (e.g., inventors, artists, scientists, etc.).

However, the difference between an individual with Asperger’s or HFA and the “typical” individual who has a complex inner world is that the latter DOES take part appropriately in two-way social interaction at times, while the former does NOT. Also, the “typical” individual, no matter how elaborate her inner world, is influenced by her social experiences, while the individual with Asperger’s or HFA seems cut-off from the effects of outside contacts.

Many “typical” grown-ups have excellent rote memories – and even retain eidetic imagery into adult life. Pedantic speech and a tendency to take things literally can also be found in “typical” individuals. Some individuals could be classified as having Asperger’s or HFA because they are at the extreme end of the normal continuum on all these traits. In other people, one particular characteristic may be so marked that it affects the whole of their functioning.

Even though Asperger’s and HFA do appear to merge into the normal continuum, there are many cases where the difficulties are so striking that the suggestion of a distinct disorder seems to be a more credible explanation than a “variant of normality.”

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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