What is the Smart Autism Called?

Explore 'what is the smart autism called', delve into the unique intelligence of high-functioning autism.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
May 31, 2024

What is the Smart Autism Called?

Understanding High-Functioning Autism

The term 'high-functioning autism' or HFA often refers to individuals with autism who exhibit intellectual or cognitive abilities that are similar to or higher than their neurotypical peers. It's often associated with what people colloquially refer to as 'smart autism'. This form of autism, although characterized by certain challenges, also comes with unique strengths.

Characteristics of HFA

High-functioning autism (HFA) is characterized by features similar to those of Asperger syndrome. The defining characteristic recognized by psychologists is a significant delay in the development of early speech and language skills, before the age of three years [1].

People with high-functioning autism can experience sensory overload, have difficulty understanding social cues, and struggle with controlling emotions. They may also face challenges with executive functioning, emotional regulation, verbal communication, and social skills, which can impact various aspects of their lives such as work and social interactions.

Risk of Anxiety in HFA

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders, including high-functioning autism, risk developing symptoms of anxiety. Children and adolescents with high-functioning autism are at an even greater risk of developing symptoms of anxiety [1]. This could potentially be due to their heightened sensitivity to their environment and the struggles they face in social situations.

Additionally, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions are common in people with high-functioning autism (HFA), with studies suggesting that individuals with HFA are more likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder than the general population [2].

Understanding the characteristics and the potential risks linked with high-functioning autism is crucial for parents, caregivers, and educators. This awareness can guide them in providing the right support and interventions to help individuals with HFA navigate their daily lives successfully.

Distinctions of High-Functioning Autism

High-Functioning Autism (HFA) presents itself with some distinctive traits, especially in terms of intellectual abilities and behavioral aspects. These characteristics are crucial for understanding and addressing the challenges faced by individuals with HFA.

Intellectual Abilities in HFA

One characteristic that distinguishes HFA from other forms of autism is the absence of intellectual disabilities. High-functioning autism does not hinder intellectual abilities, unlike low-functioning autism where 40-55% of individuals also experience intellectual disability Wikipedia.

This means that individuals with HFA can possess average or even above-average intelligence. They often exhibit strengths in areas such as memory, attention to detail, and visual skills. However, it's important to note that this can vary greatly from person to person, as the spectrum of autism is wide and diverse.

Despite their intellectual capabilities, individuals with HFA may face challenges in other areas such as executive functioning and emotional regulation, which can impact various aspects of their lives, including work and social interactions Verywell Health.

Behavioral Aspects of HFA

Individuals with high-functioning autism often face unique behavioral challenges. They may experience sensory overload, have difficulty understanding social cues, and struggle with controlling emotions Verywell Health.

Furthermore, they may exhibit a delay or lack of social skills, find it challenging to understand the feelings and reactions of others, and struggle to interact in a typical social setting. Instead, they might insist on discussing topics they are passionate about Autism Parenting Magazine.

Despite these challenges, many individuals with HFA can thrive, showcasing their unique skills and talents WebMD. However, they may face obstacles during the job application process due to their social skills, communication, and behavior management difficulties.

Understanding these distinctions is crucial in appreciating the unique abilities of individuals with high-functioning autism and helping them navigate their challenges. By focusing on their strengths and providing necessary support, individuals with HFA can lead fulfilling lives and make significant contributions to society.

Challenges of High-Functioning Autism

High-functioning autism, often referred to as the "smart autism", presents a unique set of challenges. These tend to center around behavioral issues, social and emotional difficulties, and cognitive challenges.

Behavioral Challenges

Individuals with high-functioning autism often experience behavioral challenges. These may include sensory overload, difficulty understanding social cues, and struggles with controlling emotions. For example, they might react unusually to sights, sounds, or textures that may seem normal to others. They may also misinterpret social cues, leading to misunderstandings or inappropriate responses in social situations. Furthermore, they may have difficulty managing their emotions, leading to outbursts or meltdowns when they are overwhelmed.

Another common behavioral challenge is the delay or lack of social skills. Individuals with high-functioning autism may struggle to understand the feelings and reactions of others. They may also insist on talking about their own areas of interest, making it difficult for them to interact socially.

Social and Emotional Difficulties

Social and emotional difficulties are prominent in individuals with high-functioning autism. These challenges often present as barriers in the job application process, due to difficulties in social skills, communication, and behavior management. However, despite these barriers, many individuals with high-functioning autism thrive in their careers, showcasing their unique skills and talents.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions are also common among people with high-functioning autism. Studies suggest that individuals with high-functioning autism are more likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder than the general population.

Cognitive Challenges

Cognitive challenges are another significant aspect of high-functioning autism. These include difficulties with executive functioning, emotional regulation, verbal communication, and social skills. These challenges can impact various aspects of the individuals' lives such as work, social interactions, and independent living.

In conclusion, high-functioning autism, while associated with average or above-average intelligence, comes with its own set of challenges. Understanding these challenges can help in identifying appropriate support and interventions, paving the way for individuals with high-functioning autism to reach their full potential.

Diagnosing and Classifying High-Functioning Autism

Understanding the diagnosis and classification of high-functioning autism, often referred to as the 'smart autism', can be a critical step for parents in getting the right support for their child. This includes understanding the evolution of diagnostic terms and the current system used for ASD levels.

Evolution of Diagnostic Terms

The diagnostic terms used for autism, particularly high-functioning autism, have evolved over time. Initially, high-functioning autism was referred to as Asperger's syndrome, named in 1944 by Viennese psychologist Hans Asperger. It was only in 1994 that Asperger's syndrome was officially classified as its own disorder [4].

In 2013, however, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was released. This edition introduced a broader diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which replaced the previous separate groupings of Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.

Under this new classification, a person who would have previously been diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder is now considered to have "high functioning autism" on the ASD spectrum.

DSM-5 and ASD Levels

DSM-5 categorizes Autism Spectrum Disorder into three levels based on the amount of support needed due to challenges with social communication and restricted interests or repetitive behaviors.

Here's a brief overview:

  1. Level 1: "Requiring support"
  2. Level 2: "Requiring substantial support"
  3. Level 3: "Requiring very substantial support"

High-Functioning Autism (HFA) is a specific subset of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), generally representing individuals at level 1 of the ASD spectrum. Individuals with HFA typically have average to above-average intellectual abilities but may face unique challenges in navigating the social world and managing emotions [6].

Understanding these classifications can help parents and caregivers better comprehend their child's diagnosis and the potential challenges they may face. It can also inform the selection of appropriate interventions and supports, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which can be customized to meet the specific needs and goals of individuals with high-functioning autism.

Support and Interventions for High-Functioning Autism

In order to support and empower individuals with high-functioning autism, it's crucial to explore and implement effective intervention strategies. These interventions encompass a wide range of therapies, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Therapy (MBT).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown to significantly improve various aspects of social functioning such as social skills, interactions, responsiveness, and empathy in high-functioning autistic adults. The effects of these improvements have been noted to persist even after the interventions have been concluded [7].

The PEERS YA program, a CBT-based intervention, successfully increased social skills knowledge, overall social skills, social skills behavior, and responsiveness. Additionally, it also decreased social anxiety and feelings of loneliness in adults with high-functioning autism.

Moreover, CBT interventions have been associated with lower drop-out rates, higher subjective improvement, increased wellbeing, understanding of difficulties, and an enhanced ability to express needs in high-functioning autistic adults, compared to recreational activity control groups.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

While the specific impacts of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) on individuals with high-functioning autism (also referred to as the "smart autism") weren't provided in the context, DBT is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that teaches behavioral skills to help handle stress, manage emotions, and improve relationships. It can be adapted to meet the unique needs of individuals with high-functioning autism.

Mindfulness-Based Therapy (MBT)

Mindfulness-Based Therapy (MBT) has also proven beneficial for individuals with high-functioning autism. This therapy approach has led to a significant reduction in anxiety, depression, and rumination, as well as an increase in positive affect in adults with high-functioning autism, compared to a waitlist control group.

Furthermore, online interventions, which include both CBT and MBT, have resulted in reduced anxiety levels compared to control conditions, with these effects being maintained over time, in adults with high-functioning autism [7].

These interventions highlight the potential of various therapy approaches in enhancing the social functioning and overall wellbeing of individuals with high-functioning autism. By employing these therapies, we can support these individuals in overcoming their challenges and lead fulfilling lives.

Success and Barriers in High-Functioning Autism

High-functioning autism, often referred to as the 'smart autism', brings a unique set of skills and challenges. While these individuals often excel in certain areas, they may face barriers in other aspects of life. This section presents some success stories, discusses employment and education challenges, and provides strategies for thriving with high-functioning autism.

Success Stories of Individuals with HFA

Contrary to common misconceptions, individuals with high-functioning autism can achieve great success in their careers. One notable example is Temple Grandin, PhD, who despite her autism, excelled in her career designing systems for managing livestock [4]. These success stories highlight that with the right support and opportunities, individuals with high-functioning autism can thrive professionally.

Employment and Education Challenges

Despite the potential for success, individuals with high-functioning autism often face significant barriers in employment and education. In 2021, 85% of adults with autism spectrum disorder were unemployed, which underscores the high unemployment rates among individuals with ASD [4]. Challenges in social skills, communication, and behavior management often present hurdles in the job application process.

In the realm of education, despite showing higher success levels in math and being more likely to choose STEM majors, people with autism spectrum disorder have the lowest overall rate of enrollment in college compared to individuals without ASD or those with a different disability.

Group College Enrollment Rate
Individuals with ASD 36.7%
Individuals without ASD 41.5%
Individuals with a different disability 40.3%

Strategies for Thriving with HFA

Despite these challenges, there are many strategies that can help individuals with high-functioning autism thrive. Here are a few key strategies:

  • Job Coaching and Vocational Training: These services can help individuals with high-functioning autism develop the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. This includes social skills, communication skills, and job-specific skills.
  • Educational Support: Special education services and accommodations can help students with high-functioning autism succeed in school. This includes extra time on tests, a quiet place to take exams, and assistance with note-taking.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can help individuals with high-functioning autism manage anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that can interfere with their ability to succeed in school or work.
  • Social Skills Training: This type of training can help individuals with high-functioning autism improve their ability to interact with others, a key skill in both school and work environments.

By implementing these strategies, individuals with high-functioning autism can overcome barriers and work towards their unique goals. The journey may be challenging, but with the right support, individuals with high-functioning autism can unlock their full potential.


[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-functioning_autism

[2]: https://www.verywellhealth.com/why-high-functioning-autism-is-so-challenging-259951

[3]: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/high-functioning-autism-other-types-of-autism/

[4]: https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/high-functioning-autism

[5]: https://www.thrivingwellnesscenter.com/blog/highfunctioningautismchecklist

[6]: https://www.thrivingwellnesscenter.com/blog/cbtanddbtforautism

[7]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10808656/