High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s: A Normal Variant of Personality?

All the traits that describe High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) can be found in varying degrees in the normal population. For example:

  • People differ in their levels of skill in their ability to read nonverbal social cues.
  • The capacity to withdraw into an inner world of one's own special interests is available in a greater or lesser measure to everyone. In fact, this ability has to be present in those who are creative artists, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, etc.
  • A lot of people have outstandingly rote memories - and even retain vivid imagery into adult life.
  • Collecting objects (e.g., stamps, old glass bottles, or railway engine numbers) are socially accepted hobbies. 
  • Many who are capable and independent as grown-ups have special interests that they pursue with marked enthusiasm. 
  • People differ in their levels of skill in social interaction.
  • There is an equally wide distribution in motor skills.
  • Pedantic speech and a tendency to take things literally can also be found in many people.

In one documented case, a man whose visual memories of objects and events were so vivid and so permanent that they interfered with his comprehension of their significance, appeared to behave like someone with Asperger’s. However, he did not meet enough of the criteria to actually receive the diagnosis of the disorder.

The difference between someone with HFA or AS and the “neurotypical” (i.e., non-autistic person) who has a complex inner world is that the neurotypical does take part appropriately in two-way social interaction most of the time, whereas the HFA or AS person does not.

Also, the neurotypical, however elaborate his or her inner world, is influenced by social experiences, whereas the person on the autism spectrum seems cut off from the effects of outside contacts.

People are usually diagnosed with HFA or AS because they are at the extreme end of the normal continuum on all these characteristics. In a few of these individuals, one particular aspect may be so marked that it affects the whole of their functioning. 

Even though HFA and AS do appear to merge into the normal continuum, there are many cases in whom the problems are so marked that the suggestion of a distinct “disorder” seems a more likely explanation than a “variant of normality.”

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