High functioning autistic adults face the unique challenge of straddling the fence between the autism community and the community at large, often feeling as if they don't quite fit in with either. The term high functioning autism, or HFA, is used to describe individuals who meet the criteria for a diagnosis of autism, yet show no cognitive delays, and are able to speak, read, and write, as well as have IQ scores of average or above. Those with HFA do suffer difficulties in communication, language, and social interaction typical of autism, as well as repetitive behaviors and narrow interests associated with the disorder. Abstract language concepts, such as irony and humor may well be beyond the comprehension of adults with high functioning autism.
High Functioning Autistic Adults in the Mainstream
Many adults with high functioning autism are able to blend into society as well as anyone, learning to manage their autism to build successful and independent lives. Many find their niche in society quite nicely, with satisfying careers, successful marriages, fulfilling friendships, and active social lives. To the average person, untrained in the subtleties of autism, these high functioning adults may not seem as if they have autism at all, sparing them the assumptions and prejudices faced by those with symptoms that are more obvious.
Others have more difficulty establishing themselves, finding that their challenges in social awareness and communication create issues that can make independent living difficult. Often, adults with HFA are misunderstood by those who lack experience with autism, and their lack of social awareness and interaction may be construed as rude behavior. Symptoms such as an inability to maintain eye contact during conversation can make job interviews and establishing friendships difficult, as people often misinterpret the behavior as dishonesty or a lack of interest.
Steady employment can be a challenge to some high functioning autistic adults. While workers with HFA are very often extremely bright, focused, and talented employees, the social aspects of the workplace can be their undoing. Workplace camaraderie can be unfamiliar territory for those with social interaction difficulties, the small talk and humor beyond their grasp. Co-workers who are not aware of the difficulties faced by those with autism may see them as odd, due to behavioral symptoms, or too serious, aloof, or arrogant because of the social awkwardness that accompanies the disorder. These misunderstandings can breed resentments among co-workers, causing dismissals by employers in order to keep peace in the workplace.
Many adults with high functioning autism face an uphill battle in establishing lasting personal relationships, facing the same misconceptions in personal friendships as in workplace ones. Actions that result from a lack of understanding of non-verbal cues, such as body language or facial expression, can leave others with the impression that autistic adults are self-involved, uncaring individuals. High functioning autistic children are often bullied and ridiculed by schoolmates, making them leery of interaction as adults, adding to social awkwardness.
Challenges within the Autism Community
Autism awareness has risen dramatically over recent years, resulting in more information and resources available to address the needs of the autism community. Children with high functioning autism certainly benefit from these resources, with access to necessary intervention services from infancy and throughout the schooling years. On the other hand, adults with high functioning autism can fall between the cracks of today's safety net of autism resources and services, their symptoms seen as too mild to qualify them for the support received by more severely affected adults.
However, even the most mildly affected among autistic adults face challenges in managing their disorder. For instance, adults with HFA are statistically more prone to depression than the average person, and low self-esteem and loneliness are common problems. Affordable resources to address these issues can be hard to find, especially in adults for whom these issues have made keeping a job difficult. Added to that is the fact that less severe symptoms can make applications for medical and psychological assistance less likely to be approved.
Dealing with Isolation
Adults with HFA are a minority among the autism community, making up just a small percentage of those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Since their numbers are so small in relation to the autism community as a whole, the resources and information relevant to adults with HFA can be much less prevalent than those geared towards children and adults with more severe forms of autism.
In addition, some adults with high functioning autism feel their struggles discounted by many in the autism community as being insignificant compared to the hardships faced by those more profoundly disabled. These factors and others combine to make many adults with HFA feel isolated from the autistic community, their concerns and struggles marginalized by the majority.
While autism research and management has improved by leaps and bounds over recent years, many of the difficulties faced every day by individuals with autism make it clear that much more work lies ahead. In the case of high functioning autistic adults, education and understanding is lacking in many areas. Both in the autism community and in mainstream society, misunderstandings abound, leaving many of those affected by HFA feeling stranded, with one foot planted in each world but truly at home in none.