What is High-Functioning Autism?

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on December 04, 2020

“High-functioning autism” isn’t an official medical term or diagnosis. It’s an informal one some people use when they talk about people with an autism spectrum disorder who can speak, read, write, and handle basic life skills like eating and getting dressed. They can live independently.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

For a long time, however, only people with very severe symptoms were diagnosed with autism. Starting in the 1990s, milder forms were recognized, including high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome, which share many of the same symptoms.

Then in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association grouped the autism-related disorders into one term: autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

Still, you may hear some people who aren’t doctors continue to use terms like Asperger’s. It may be that they’re not familiar with the spectrum, or they may be referring to a diagnosis made before the conditions were renamed as autism spectrum disorder.


Like all people on the autism spectrum, people who are high functioning have a hard time with social interaction and communication. They don’t naturally read social cues and might find it difficult to make friends. They can get so stressed by a social situation that they shut down. They don’t make much eye contact or small talk.

People on the spectrum who are high-functioning can also be very devoted to routine and order. They might have repetitive and restrictive habits that seem odd to others.

There’s a wide range of how they do with school and work. Some do very well in school, while others get overwhelmed and can’t concentrate.

Some can hold a job, and others find that really hard to do. It all depends on the person and the situation. But even for someone on the spectrum who can do a lot, the commonality among those diagnosed with ASD is underdeveloped social skills.

Show Sources


Synapse: “High-Functioning Autism.”

The Arc: “Autism and Adult Diagnosis.”

Autism Speaks: “Asperger Syndrome,” “Diagnostic Overview,” “How are Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism Different?”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info