The Reality and Challenges of Living with High-Functioning Autism
Autism has come to the forefront as one way in which a person may be wired differently, or neurodivergent. Understanding the challenges presented by autism can help you or a loved one navigate life effectively. Regardless of the challenges that autism brings, one can confidently say with the Psalmist:
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. – Psalm 139: 14
What is autism?
It is important to start by understanding and speaking about autism as a spectrum disorder. The term “spectrum” in the condition known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to the wide range of symptoms and their severity as they are experienced in daily life. People with autism have a broad range of abilities and needs, and no one individual has the exact same needs and capacities as another.
ASD is inclusive of and relates to conditions that were once considered separate, such as Asperger’s syndrome, autism, and childhood disintegrative disorder. ASD is a neurodevelopmental condition that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others. This, in turn, causes social, behavioral, and communication problems in relationships and interactions with others.
At present, the underlying causes of autism have not been determined, but the research seems to suggest that it originates from structural underdevelopment of specific regions of the brain.
As people with autism have a wide range of abilities and needs, those with what is sometimes colloquially called high-functioning autism (HFA) may not require as much support as others on the spectrum. However, this does not mean that there are no challenges, as one may still struggle with day-to-day activities and interactions.
Signs of high-functioning autism.
There are several common signs of HFA in adults and children, including the following:
- Sensory overload, with things such as crowds, noise, smells, bright lights, strong tastes, and being touched feels unbearable
- Not understanding social cues and finding it difficult to understand what others are thinking or feeling (One may not understand social rules, such as not talking over other people)
- Avoiding eye contact when talking with someone
- Appearing to be rude, blunt, or uninterested in others without intending to
- Being highly anxious about social situations
- Having difficulty making friends or preferring to be on your own
- Having a keen interest in certain subjects or activities
- Being inclined toward planning things carefully before doing them
- Having difficulty saying how you feel
- Maintaining the same daily routine and getting very anxious if it changes or gets disrupted
- Difficulty processing the personal boundaries of others or getting too close to other people (Alternatively, a person with autism may find themselves getting quite upset if someone touches or gets too close to them)
- Anxiety, depression, or mood disorders
- Problems with verbal communication, such as taking things very literally and not understanding common phrases such as “Go break a leg”, or sarcasm
- Discerning small details, patterns, smells, or sounds that others don’t
Challenges of living with high-functioning autism.
While people may often speak of different levels of functioning regarding autism, functioning labels can be misleading because a person who can function independently in some areas may nonetheless require significant support in others. As such, even those people labeled as having HFA will still have significant needs that need to be met, and challenges they need to overcome.
To illustrate this diversity in experiences and abilities, people on the spectrum who can be termed high-functioning will often stick to clear routines, and they may exhibit repetitive and restrictive habits that come across as odd to other people.
Some individuals who are high functioning can hold down a job, while others can’t. Some do well in school while others can’t concentrate and get overwhelmed by the demands. Some of the challenges facing people diagnosed with ASD include the following:
Social awkwardness.Though there is diversity in abilities and experiences, one common challenge for people diagnosed with ASD is that they have underdeveloped social skills. Due to difficulty in picking up on body language and social cues, they may appear socially awkward as they struggle to know when to let others talk as well as how to regulate their tone of voice to convey meaning. One outcome of this is that it can be difficult to make friends, maintain romantic relationships, and find work.
Struggles with verbal communication.
While understanding language may not be an issue for a high-functioning individual with ASD, using language to communicate, with all of its nuances, may prove more challenging, and that goes for adults and children on the spectrum. A person with HFA may struggle to understand the nuances in language such as metaphors, idiomatic expressions, and sarcasm. When feeling overwhelmed or stressed, they may struggle to articulate their thoughts.
A person with autism can overreact to some situations while under-reacting in others. This happens in particular with unforeseen situations, and then the person may struggle to control their emotions. For example, if there is a sudden change in plans, they may get quite agitated as their routine has been disrupted, or they may burst into tears.
Anxiety, mood disorders, and depression.
These conditions often co-occur with high-functioning autism. Though it’s unclear why, a person with HFA is more likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder than the general populace.
Often, accompanying autism is a sensory processing disorder, in which stimuli such as sound, lights, smells, tastes and the like can be overwhelming. Sometimes, even being touched is unbearable, which makes being in a crowded space quite difficult. While these challenges can be overcome as one learns to tolerate these stimuli, it does make social activities such as going to the movies, eating out, or receiving affection in the form of a hug quite difficult.
These challenges can make everyday situations such as hanging out with friends, family members, and colleagues rather complicated. However, the effects of these challenges can be mitigated through a variety of available treatment options.
Finding help as you navigate living with autism.There is no cure for ASD, but there are a variety of treatment options and interventions that can help you or your child to live a fulfilling life. These options will vary in their efficacy depending on the individual, and no one treatment will be effective across the board, as needs will change over time, too.
The main goal of treatment is to maximize one’s ability to function by reducing the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder while supporting growth in various areas of life such as learning and cultivating social skills.
Children with ASD have many treatment options available to them, and these include:
Behavior and communication therapies such as speech-language therapy. These therapies help a person with HFA develop better social skills
Family therapies which help parents and family members learn how to effectively come alongside children with HFA
Educational and other therapies such as structured educational programs, for instance, or occupational and physical therapy to help with daily living and improved motor skills.
Medication which can help control some symptoms of ASD such as severe behavioral issues or anxiety.
Support is also available for adults with autism, in the form of treatments such as verbal, cognitive, and applied behavioral therapy which can address issues such as having difficulties at work, relationship issues, anxiety, and social isolation.
Physical and occupational therapy may also be helpful for some adults. In some instances, medication may be prescribed to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, social workers may also provide helpful links to local resources and self-advocacy groups for people with ASD.
There is help available for adults with high-functioning autism, and some of this may come in the way of individual or group therapy. There are also support groups that are available that can help connect one with other adults on the spectrum. Being informed about autism and the options available for mitigation can make a world of difference to effective social functioning.
To find out more and begin to make strides in overcoming the challenges associated with high-functioning autism, reach out to a counselor or psychologist with training in handling ASD for guidance.
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