High-Functioning Autism: Definition, Signs, and Diagnosing

For many years, the term autism has often brought to mind stereotypes and misconceptions. In the vast spectrum that autism covers, High Functioning Autism (HFA) occupies an important space, often associated with a range of specific characteristics and challenges. Dive deep with us as we unravel the layers behind the question – what is high-functioning autism?

What Is High-Functioning Autism?

High Functioning Autism, as the term suggests, is a placement on the autism spectrum where individuals display autistic traits but often have average to above-average intelligence. These individuals can typically manage daily tasks, achieve academically, and in some cases, live independently.


  1. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects 1 in 54 children in the U.S., with High Functioning Autism being a significant portion of these cases (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).
  2. The number of adults being diagnosed with HFA is on the rise, showcasing that diagnosis isn’t exclusive to childhood.

How Is High Functioning Autism Different?

When one thinks of autism, social interaction, and communication challenges often come to mind. However, those with HFA might:

  • Have milder challenges in these areas but still face difficulty in understanding social cues or norms.
  • Possess strong verbal skills but struggle with non-verbal communication.
  • Exhibit intense focus or deep knowledge in specific topics of interest.

What Does High-Functioning Autism Look Like?

The question, what does high-functioning autism look like, is multi-dimensional. The answer can vary greatly among individuals. However, common characteristics include:

  • Difficulty in understanding sarcasm or humor.
  • Tendency to interpret things literally.
  • Strong adherence to routines or rituals.
  • High sensitivity to sensory stimuli, like bright lights or loud noises.


  1. Nearly 40% of children with ASD have average to above-average intellectual ability, a common trait in HFA (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).
  2. A high percentage of people with HFA have co-occurring conditions like ADHD, anxiety, or depression.

What Are Signs of High Functioning Autism in Adults?

Spotting HFA in adults might be trickier due to the development of coping mechanisms over the years. Yet, some signs include:

  • Challenges in forming or maintaining relationships.
  • Discomfort with eye contact or physical touch.
  • A tendency to speak about oneself or a preferred subject without recognizing that others might not share the same interest.
  • Difficulty in adapting to unexpected changes.

Diagnosing High Functioning Autism

The diagnosis of HFA often involves:

  • A thorough medical evaluation.
  • Observations of the individual’s behavior and interactions.
  • Interviews with parents or guardians about early development.

It’s important to note that an HFA diagnosis might often come later in life, especially if symptoms are milder or overlooked during childhood.

High-Functioning Autism Vs. Asperger’s Syndrome

The debate and distinction between HFA and Asperger’s Syndrome have been the subject of much discussion. Both share many traits, but traditionally:

  • Asperger’s was perceived as a milder form of autism with no significant delay in language or cognitive development.
  • HFA might show early language delays, but individuals catch up over time.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association decided to merge Asperger’s Syndrome into the broader category of Autism Spectrum Disorder, making the distinction less prominent in clinical settings.


Understanding what high-functioning autism is and what high-functioning autism looks like is vital to fostering acceptance, offering support, and making informed decisions. As awareness and research progress, it’s our collective responsibility to shed preconceived notions and embrace the spectrum’s diverse individuals.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
  2. Baio, J., Christensen, D. L., Wiggins, L., et al. (2018). Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children. Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Surveillance Summaries, 67(6), 1-23.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Autism Spectrum Disorder. CDC. 
  4. Grandin, T., & Panek, R. (2013). The Autistic Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed. 

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