You may be a genius: The link between high-functioning autism and brilliance

high-functioning autism

Some disorders involve terminal illnesses or severe chronic pain. Some mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, cause terrifying hallucinations and even delusions. Yet, many are afraid of autism, which involves none of the above. 

Over the years, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is often portrayed as one of the most upsetting – and perhaps frightening – possible diagnoses.

This developmental disorder is often diagnosed in children, but some adults can actually be diagnosed with autism or high-functioning autism later in life, thanks to increasing awareness, research and more encompassing and comprehensive definitions of what constitutes autism.

But despite this, many misconceptions and myths about autism perpetuate offensive, harmful, and even misleading stereotypes. Things like “autism is a disease that can be cured”, “vaccines cause autism”, or even “autistic people are violent” are common myths – and extremely wrong. 

Perhaps you have heard someone older say something like, “Kids nowadays are so sensitive” or, “Back in my day, no one had issues like these.” 

Certainly, there was nothing like autism, anxiety, ADHD or other mental disorders years back.

Everyone just thought that Timmy in fourth grade was just acting out on purpose or that Barbara was weird for being obsessed with rocks and dirt. Surely, the neighbour’s son was merely shy, spending every house party huddled in a corner, only talking if someone asked him about his favourite cartoon.

Obviously, our understanding of autism and other mental disorders has evolved throughout the years, along with efforts to diagnose and treat those who have them.

Still, it’s important for people to be properly educated as to what autism actually is.

high-functioning autism

While Bill Gates has never been formally diagnosed with autism, many experts believe he has shown traits such as hyperfixation, difficulty communicating, and a preference for solitary activities. Source: AFP

What is autism, exactly?

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that no two autistic people are exactly the same. Autistic individuals show a wide range of traits – some have high support needs, while others could live almost normal lives. 

Even though it is a spectrum, there are three levels of ASD, which are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). These levels are used as a springboard to determine how incompatible an individual’s autistic traits are with neurotypical expectations and how much support they need in their daily life.

The levels range from least to most incompatible:

  • Level 1: Difficulty initiating social interactions or prefer independence when it comes to organisation and planning. They require support but may potentially pass off as neurotypical. 
  • Level 2: Social interactions are limited to narrow special interests or hyperfixations, and individuals may display restricted or repetitive behaviours. They may go nonverbal sometimes if overstimulated or scared. This condition requires substantial support and guidance.
  • Level 3: Displays severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication skills. They find it extremely difficult to focus on something or even change actions, and they will require dedicated support. 

It is important to remember that actual autistic people’s traits and experiences are not as clear-cut as these levels present. These levels exist to help medical providers prescribe appropriate approaches and therapies based on an individual’s unique needs – they are not to be used as a one-size-fits-all label. 

Those who are high-functioning, for example, may even pass off as neurotypical individuals.

high-functioning autism

Community creator and showrunner Dan Harmon actually realised he was autistic after researching the disorder as part of Abed’s character. Source: AFP

What does it mean to be high-functioning?

A study by the Autism Science Foundation suggests that approximately 30% to 50% of individuals with ASD have high-functioning autism. 

These individuals demonstrate fewer impairments in these areas than others on the spectrum and may not experience significant delays in language development or cognitive skills. In short, they can pass off as neurotypical folk.

But it’s also good to note that “high-functioning autism” does not mean that these individuals do not require support or assistance. They will most likely still face social, emotional, and sensory challenges that can impact their lives day-to-day. 

Perhaps an easy example would be to reference some popular TV shows.

  • Many fans suspect that “Bridgerton”‘s Francesca Bridgerton is on the spectrum. She frequently displays traits such as being hyperfixated with piano and music theory, easily being overwhelmed by crowds, and mentally blocking herself away from her chaotic family as she feels like she doesn’t fit in.
  • “The Big Bang Theory” has Sheldon, who lacks social skills, is obsessed with routines and order, and has difficulty understanding social cues.
  • Abed in “Community” is obsessed with TV and film and attempts to understand the world through pop culture references while struggling with misinterpreting social situations and being unable to fathom sarcasm.

Even if it was never outright stated in the shows that these characters are autistic, they display clear behavioural traits that fellow autistic people relate to.

This blogpost describes how the author immediately connected with Abed, writing “It was like seeing myself on television in the best and most confusing way.”

A Reddit user said, “I love Abed and really identify with the way that he obsesses over TV and pop culture. I have Asperger’s and tend to forget that other people aren’t as interested in TV as I am, so I just end up talking about TV shows and movies that they may not have even seen. But my friends in high school probably didn’t know what it meant because they used to use the words ‘autistic’ and ‘retarded’ to describe me.”

Indeed, while the term “mental retardation” was originally used as a medical term in 1961 to describe people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, it’s now become an insult – and an all-too-common one too.

And it’s just the tip of the iceberg for those with high-functioning autism.

high-functioning autism

Actress Daryl Hannah, known for “Blade Runner” and “Kill Bill,” has battled autism since childhood. Source: AFP

Challenges that people with high-functioning autism face

In truth, one’s perception of an autistic person can be judged based on where they stand on the spectrum.

If they fit the typical diagnosis of an autistic individual who requires special needs, the general public tends to be more understanding – even emphatic – to them. However, if they have high-functioning autism, they face different and perhaps more difficult challenges. 

For starters, they may come off as quirky, awkward, eccentric – even weird – to others. When combined with an environment like school or work, it quickly becomes an issue. 

It’s difficult to have a diagnosis in the first place, especially if they have no prior knowledge about autism and its traits. The people around them may not be able to give them the support they need, especially if they are in an environment with mostly neurotypicals. 

While high-functioning autism comes with its challenges, the more common ones are:

Difficulty with social interactions 

We’re not talking about being painfully introverted or having social anxiety, even though those can be traits of high-functioning autism. These particular individuals experience discomfort with eye contact and tend to lack reciprocal conversation. 

They may have difficulty understanding nonverbal communication, such as body language, or fail to pick up on sarcasm, jokes, or social cues. For example, they may interpret “break a leg” as literally breaking someone’s leg.

Dislike of change

Individuals with high-functioning autism like predictability and routine and tend to develop repetitive habits. However, as a consequence, they can become extremely upset and uncomfortable when unexpected change happens or if something interferes with their preferred behaviour pattern. 

For example, changing an assignment topic, swapping around a work shift, or their preferred toothpaste flavour being unavailable. It could even be getting the same breakfast sandwich for work five days in a row before work and then becoming unusually anxious and upset when the store opens late. 

Sensory issues

They may be sensitive to certain things, like smells, noises, light, and even touch. When exposed to sensations like the “wrong” type of fabric or overwhelming stores like Bath and Body Works, individuals with high-functioning autism can become stressed and upset. They may find it difficult to walk through malls or ride public transport and turn to using noise-cancelling headphones or sunglasses to cope.

The traits above do not require strong assistance or support, but they are still real challenges that high-functioning autistic people have to deal with. 

Autism and brilliance 

However, many people on the spectrum have achieved great things, cementing the fact that each individual still has unique strengths and abilities.

Albert Einstein, for example, one of the most famous scientists of all time, is commonly thought to have been autistic. He only started speaking after three or four years old and frequently only whispered to himself up until the age of seven. He was never really interested in games or toys but preferred to read, play the violin and master tricky math problems. As most people know, he failed school, but he turned out to be a genius.

Some other famous people with autism include Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Steven Spielberg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charles Darwin, Jane Austen and more. If you’ve spotted a pattern, you are correct – they were all renowned for their craft and demonstrated unique abilities and genius during their careers. 

Which then begs the question – does being autistic mean someone is incredibly smart and gifted in a certain area?

It’s important to note that some people assume that individuals on the spectrum have extraordinary abilities, referred to as savant syndrome. Someone who is considered a savant may be extremely skilled in math, music, art, memory recall or other areas. 

However, it is truly rare, as it’s not an official diagnosis and is mostly seen in fiction, such as:

  • Rain Main: Raymond Babbitt
  • The Good Doctor: Shaun Murphy
  • Extraordinary Attorney Woo: Woo Young Woo
  • Atypical: Sam

Perhaps a famous savant in real life would be Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic man who famously recreated the New York City skyline on a 19-foot-long piece of paper from just a 20-minute helicopter ride. As a child, he was nonverbal and only communicated via his drawings, but he could draw stunningly accurate images of wildlife and caricatures of his teachers. 

Today, he is an honoured Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to art, and his artworks grace prestigious museums worldwide. He has drawn numerous cityscapes worldwide, capturing cities such as Singapore, Istanbul, Mexico City and Doha, Qatar.

Savants like Wiltshire are few and far between, but most autistic individuals still display unique talents and perspectives.

It’s up to society to learn and understand these perspectives to help create a more inclusive, welcoming society that will allow autistic people – whether high-functioning or not – to thrive and contribute their talents.