How to Write High-Functioning Autism
There are many different kinds of autistic spectrum disorder. People may classically think of children who struggle to communicate, have meltdowns, learning delays, and lack of any self-control. However this is not all there is to the autistic spectrum.
Every autistic person is different and has different symptoms.
The term high functioning also has many different meanings. For the sake of clarity in this context I am using it to refer to those autistic people who have an adult intellect and are able to live independently, both practically and financially.
This definition does not take into account the many ways autistic people can have high-functioning aspects to their character, however is accurate for the kind of character writing this post aims to address.
Girls present very differently to boys (and as a result, many girls—like myself—go undiagnosed until much later in life).
The IQ of the person concerned is a huge factor in how they are affected, as is their sensitivity to sensory stimuli.
Many people believe it is wrong to call autism a disorder at all and it should be considered a form of neurodiversity. In the case of high-functioning autism, there is a particularly compelling argument for this.
Many high-functioning autistic people have good jobs and successful relationships. These are people who are succeeding at life—and in many cases it is largely because of their autistic tendencies.
Being able to apply unswerving logic to a situation and visualise its possible mathematical solutions, or memorise huge chunks of text, lists of numbers, formulae, maps and rules, or notice the tiniest variations in a pattern can lead to excelling in many fields.
The people who have these abilities are often (although not always) on the autistic spectrum. They have the tools to succeed at solving problems where others may have failed.
This ability is what may have led to the current high incidence of high-functioning autism in the population. From an evolutionary perspective, the high IQ and problem-solving skills would have been a huge survival advantage, and therefore would have been selected for in the very early days of humankind’s history.
Neurodiversity should therefore not be written as something which needs to be fixed.
This is important. I may have some social differences, and some tics and obsessive behaviours, but I am not broken. I am different.
The BBC ran a documentary with wildlife broadcaster Chris Packham on how his Aspergers affects his life. It is well worth a watch for anyone who is writing a high functioning autistic character from the outside in.
My favourite quote from this documentary is “My having mild autism does not mean I experience my autism mildly, it means you experience my autism mildly.” This is definitely something to keep in mind when writing an autistic character.
Causes of Autism
The causes of autistic spectrum disorders are largely unknown. The only thing we DO know for certain is that there is absolutely no correlation to vaccinations.
There are likely to be significant genetic elements to the condition. Some families have a very high incidence of autism, and it is unusual for a child to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and not have at least one parent that shows some autistic traits.
As mentioned above, there is a strong evolutionary case for autism being largely inherited.
Characteristics of high-functioning autism
This affects everyone differently. Boys are likely to be unwilling to make eye contact, while girls often go undiagnosed until they are much older because this supposedly ‘defining’ characteristic is absent.
Autistic may appear ‘odd’ to neurotypical people. They may say things that seem irrelevant or tactless, and may be louder or quieter than other people.
A large number of autistic people also have related social anxiety disorders which affect their social interactions even further. Your autistic character may be obnoxiously loud when they meet new people and be unfairly judged by some people as a result.
Then again, they might not!
For someone with high-functioning autism the nuances of language are usually easy. An extensive vocabulary and exceptional memory allow them to structure and comprehend sentences that would defeat the average person’s ability.
What they struggle with is emotion and body language. The tight-lipped look that would warn most people they are on dangerous ground is likely to be lost on an autistic person.
It may be difficult to identify sarcasm, or to tell whether something is good-natured ribbing or someone being nasty, and they may be unaware when they are being emotionally manipulated.
An autistic person may also struggle to empathise with other people or to understand why someone else is upset about something. Sometimes they don’t understand why something upsets them, let alone other people.
Of course many learn to navigate these things—much as a neurotypical person would learn French or Spanish—as they grow up so the presentation of the autism changes even within an individual. Between individuals the differences can be astounding.
Importantly, people with many variations of high-functioning autism do not avoid social interaction by choice. The drive to be social is present—as it is for most people—and autistic people will seek out interactions.
Autistic children may find it hard to make friends and repeated failure in social situations can lead to them developing a wariness of new people, and a preference for solitude to avoid bullying. People can also be a source of the sensory stimulation—as detailed below—that makes the world difficult for some autistic people.
Sensory processing issues
One feature of autistic spectrum disorders is that certain senses may be intensified. A strong reaction to hearing certain noises is common. Even someone breathing too loudly may result in a sensation akin to physical pain.
As I type this the person sitting next to me has a slightly blocked nose and it is whistling as they breathe. It is making my skin crawl—I feel something not unlike the sensation of being stung by nettles, except on the underside of my skin. It is also making my chest tight and uncomfortable.
Flashing lights causing visual overload and certain touch sensations being unexpectedly painful are also common. An autistic person may struggle to wear certain fabrics, have an intense dislike for certain types of clothing (hats, scarves, gloves, socks, and belts are all common triggers). Tags on clothing can also be a source of discomfort.
These stimuli can lead to sensory overload, which can result in what I refer to as an autistic meltdown. Many people do not understand these meltdowns as they can closely resemble a toddler having a tantrum.
Unlike tantrums, meltdowns cannot be rectified by reason, bargaining, bribery, or threats! They are a form of panic attack, and once they start the autistic person is no more in control of them than they would be an epileptic seizure.
Phobia of change
This is another ‘defining’ characteristic of autistic spectrum disorder and is still used as a diagnostic certainty by many doctors. Of course, many autistic people do not have this characteristic and therefore go undiagnosed.
What the fear of change usually boils down to is a fear of being out of control. If an autistic person is prepared for a change, has precipitated that change, or welcomes that change then they are able to deal with it without issue.
If something is not right in their world, doesn’t align properly, or makes them uncomfortable they will WANT to change it, and doing so will provide them with a great sense of relief.
The changes that most often cause problems are those that are foisted onto the autistic person, that alter something that they rely on, or that seem to be for no apparent reason. They may also have a problem with rules that seem to be nonsensical, especially if they can see a better way of doing something.
Stimming is something a lot of autistic people on all parts of the spectrum do: it is not limited to high-functioning autistics. Of course, it is also absent altogether from many people. I’ve never had a lot of stimming behaviours myself and have largely grown out of the few I did have.
Stimming is a repetitive physical action that helps to ground or calm the person. Common example include hand waving, tapping hands or feet, head shaking, and twirling things.
These are important coping mechanisms for many autistic people. In the past the advice has been to prevent a child from engaging in stimming. This resulted in a large amount of distress being caused, and current advice is simply to direct stimming into a non-destructive channel rather than try to prevent it altogether.
Highly focused interests
People with high-functioning autism are often extremely passionate about their interests. This typically goes beyond simple dedication or being a fan to it becoming an obsession.
It would not be unusual for a person with autism to be able to talk about their favourite TV show, not just in terms of the characters and plot lines, but also in terms of the actors, writers, producers, directors, and everything else about the making of the show.
Because many autistic people have extremely efficient memories these obsessions can develop quickly. They can also fade out just as quickly, although it is likely that a lot of the information they learned will be retained.
An autistic person will usually be able to talk at length, and without requiring a reciprocal input, about their interests.
The writers of The Big Bang Theory capture this in Sheldon Cooper’s obsession with trains. While in many ways this character is something of a caricature of a high-functioning autistic person, this aspect of his personality is accurate.
This doesn’t mean that an autistic person thinks the world revolves around them and everyone should drop everything for them (ok maybe a little bit!)! It means that they have trouble relating to, or finding importance in, things that don’t directly affect them.
This may affect how they act. For example they simply might not realise that something impacts on somebody other than themselves. This can lead to behaviour that some people think is unreasonable or selfish.
The autistic person does not mean to offend people with this—other people simply don’t occur to them when they are planning their actions. If they do remember someone else exists they may do one thing that is kind and thoughtful but completely miss something blindingly obvious.
For example, I was accused by a neighbour of being ‘ignorant’ because I drove past her on the way home and waved but didn’t stop to offer her a lift. I was just thinking that I was being friendly by waving. It didn’t occur to me that she might appreciate a lift home.
These accidental faux pas are great for showing the impact autistic spectrum disorder can have on someone and their relationships with other people.
Inability to lie
This is a characteristic seen in a significant minority of high-functioning autistic people.
In some cases the autistic person simply will not try to lie, as it would not occur to them.
In other cases they may try to lie but this will cause such stress and abnormal behaviour that it is immediately obvious.
Treatment for high-functioning autism
As autism is not actually a medical condition which can be cured the word treatment is largely inappropriate. Asperger syndrome is part of who I am. As well as the difficulties it has caused me with social interactions it is also responsible for many of the greatest achievements of my life.
Support for autistic people may include:
- Social interaction training for key life skills
- Medication to control anxiety
- Therapy or counselling to help with anxiety
- Support groups for people with similar disorders
It is also thought that a gluten and casein free diet, and taking certain vitamins, can help to minimise the life-disrupting characteristics of an autistic spectrum disorder.
Applied behavioural analysis
One technique that has been widely used for children with some types of autism is applied behavioural analysis (ABA). This is a form of therapy based on rewarding desirable behaviours and interactions, and correcting undesirable ones.
The principle is similar to that of training a dog. The child is taught in a structured way how to act in certain situation, as opposed to learning this instinctively as a neurotypical child might. It has also been used on some adults.
Critics of this technique believe that it is the wrong approach for those with high-functioning autism because it focuses on forcing neurodiverse individuals to conform to society, rather than changing society to accept neurodiversity. People after all are not dogs.
There have also been cases where the use of this therapy has been shown to be excessive, such as administering electric shocks for incorrect actions. There are documented cases of this causing PTSD. Understandably this has raised serious concerns about the validity of ABA.
Most autistic people are against the use of ABA. It is likened to conversion therapy for gay and trans people, as it seeks to fundamentally change part of the person’s nature. This is widely accepted to be inhumane for gay and trans people, and yet is still recommended for autistic children by professionals.
This conflict is something that could potentially be explored in fiction or poetry.
Examples of high-functioning autism in popular culture
Please note there may be some minor spoilers in the following passages. Some of these examples are good examples of representation of neurodiversity. Some are less good.
There are scarily few of either good or bad. Considering the huge number of people with an autistic spectrum diagnosis we are remarkably underrepresented.
Sheldon Cooper—The Big Bang Theory
The character of Sheldon displays many characteristics of autistic spectrum disorder. The show’s creators have said they did not deliberately write Sheldon as an autistic character, however Jim Parsons, the actor who plays him, has said he has always assumed the character has Asperger syndrome.
This character is somewhat polarising. Although he does show an autistic character living a successful life and able to show personal growth, he is an exaggerated character. Some people feel that this contributes to perpetuating some harmful stereotypes.
This is a common criticism of autistic characters in film and television.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time—Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the story of the boy who gets carried away with an obsession over the death of his neighbour’s dog is considered by many to be one of the better representations of autism in literature.
Christopher is a complex character, his autism forming only a part of his character. He displays lots of typical characteristics and the books effectively explores how these affect his life.
The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvire Carr—Frances Maynard
Although it is never named as such in the book, Elvire Carr’s big problem is that she is autistic—quite severely so—and has no idea how to interact with other people.
Elvire also shows some learning delays so is not as high-functioning as some of the characters in this list. She is however a great ambassador for the autistic community: well-researched and well-written.
Maurice—The IT Crowd
Although not one of the best known characters on television, Maurice may well be one of the best-written autistic characters. He is quite severely affected by the ASD but is portrayed sensitively making him likeable and relatable.
The IT Crowd is possibly the only TV show that manages to portray a person with Asperger syndrome as part of the jokes rather than the butt of them. For that reason Maurice is an important character, helping to dispel the stereotype that autistic people struggle to have any sense of humour.
He also accepts and owns his self-proclaimed weirdness which I absolutely love.
Abby has never been formally given the diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder by the writers of NCIS, but she has many characteristics that place her firmly on the spectrum. Relating more to computers than people, high IQ, and displaying various eccentricities without thought to how they impact people around her all make her highly likely to be on the spectrum.
Abby is one of TVs best-loved characters, which surely gives hope to those of us who have struggled to find acceptance with our neurodiversity.
Writing an autistic character can be challenging, but with the rise in recognition of neurodiversity it is something writers need to be thinking about more in order to write truly representative fiction.
The most important thing is to remember that every individual is different. There is no aspect of neurodiversity that is identical from one person to the next.
This gives a writer loads of room to experiment and write unique, complex characters to suit many different kinds of story. As well as being challenging, autistic characters can be great fun to write and read about.
So give it a go—write an autistic character the world can relate to. And let me know about it when you do!
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