Intelligent High-Functioning Autism

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that autism is heterogeneous disorder. There are sooooo many different manifestations of autism that are are all called “ASD.” The situation is more than confusing. In the future, autism subtypes will be more well defined and parents, spouses, family members and professionals will all have more information to help them understand the puzzle.

Often, when I talk about mixed-neurological marriages, people imagine someone they know who has autism and think about what it would be like if that person — the person they know — were married. Yet, many people with autism will never marry and have children.

In a nutshell, high-functioning autism is autism without language or intellectual impairment. There are many people on the spectrum who are able to use language and who have a solid average intelligence. These people also have high-functioning autism, but it is less likely that they will marry.

Although not nearly enough research has been done and we don’t have the numbers to prove it, my inclination (based on my personal experience in the autism community) is to believe that most of the adults on the spectrum who get married and have children are highly intelligent.

Many autism professionals working with high-functioning adults on the spectrum may be spending a majority of their time working with people who who have average levels of intelligence, not their high-intelligence counterparts.

It may be that highly intelligent adults with autism are very rarely seen by professionals. In many cases, it may be that their spouses are their primary — and even only — caretakers. The professional community may have little to no experience working with the adults on the spectrum who are the most likely to be married.

Highly intelligent adults with autism are able to use their intellect to develop sophisticated compensatory strategies that make it easier for them to achieve marriage. They are often very employable and many are geniuses in their fields. Silicon Valley is full of them! From the outside, most friends and colleagues of people with highly intelligent autism wouldn’t notice much aside from some “quirkiness” and maybe some different speech and social patterns.

Inside marriage and close family relationships, however, impairment in capacity to understand partners’ and children’s perspectives and intentions makes a big difference — high intelligence or no. Typically developing human social communication is complicated stuff. It includes voice inflection, gestures and body language to communicate nuanced meaning, emotions, and ideas. That kind of communication isn’t happening in mixed-neurological relationships, regardless of levels of intelligence, leaving typically developing partners and children confused as to why the very intelligent ASD family member doesn’t seem to understand.

It may be helpful for autism professionals considering mixed-neurological marriage and close family relationships to keep in mind that the clients they most often see are not usually the same clients who are getting married and having children.

In general, I think it was a step forward to lump Asperger’s in with the many other manifestations of autism. This helped us understand what is similar about this large group of heterogenous people. I’m also looking forward to a time in the future when we all know a lot more about all the many different subtypes of autism so that we don’t keep confusing highly intelligent people with high-functioning autism with others who also have high-functioning autism, but whose compensatory strategies might not be quite as honed.

It’ll be nice, too, when a common vocabulary for different subtypes of ASD is established so professionals — and everybody else — can have a more clear picture of what we’re each talking about.

Typically developing spouses who come to the conclusion that their partners are on the autism spectrum may be talking about a very different manifestation of autism than professionals are accustomed to seeing in the clinic. Professionals may better understand what typically developing spouses are trying to say once the idea that highly intelligent married people on the autism spectrum aren’t generally the same people as those who are regularly getting professional autism assistance.

Hopefully, at some point, there will be enough services available for highly intelligent people on the autism spectrum that professionals will see more of them.

Well….. more of them outside the marriage counseling room.

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