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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

Signs of Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism in Adults

Updated: Jul 5

By Patty Laushman

If you're an adult and you've always felt “different” or deeply anxious in social situations, or you’re just really struggling with aspects of adulting, you may be wondering if you are autistic.

With increasing awareness of autism and higher percentages of kids being diagnosed since 2000, many adults who would have previously been considered for what was previously referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome (Aspies), high functioning autism, or “mild” autism are recognizing signs of autism in themselves.

woman seated on a couch, gazing out of a window while contemplating whether she might have autism.

Today, the formal diagnosis for all of these is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Level 1, and many who qualify slipped through the cracks when they were younger.

Note: There are people in the autism community who oppose the use of Hans Asperger’s name or functioning labels, but these older terms help people connect with what autism is. Banishing their use does not help the people still trying to figure out if they are part of the autism community, and for this reason, I will use them here.

While there are no definitive tests for autism (for example, you can’t take a blood test or have an MRI done to find out if you have autism), there are certain signs that can point to it.

Let’s take a closer look!

What is ASD Level 1?

ASD Level 1, like the other two levels of autism (ASD Level 2 and ASD Level 3), is characterized by difficulty with social interaction and communication, as well as repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities.

The latter can look like repetitive physical movements or verbal utterances, inflexible behavior, narrow interests, or hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input.

Often, ASD Level 1 doesn’t come with delays in speech though, something pediatricians look for that leads to earlier autism diagnoses.

This is one way people with ASD Level 1 get missed. Another factor that leads to later diagnoses is their relatively stronger abilities to “mask,” or fit into normative behavior. Unfortunately, masking can lead to burnout and even mental health issues eventually.

They may end up with a series of incremental diagnoses that don’t explain the entire constellation of symptoms, such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, OCD, or bipolar disorder.

If they get diagnosed at all, it’s not until life’s demands outstrip their ability to compensate that they end up with a correct diagnosis. They end up struggling for much longer without supports and interventions, sometimes for years or decades.

Signs of ASD Level 1 in Adults

ASD Level 1 can involve a variety of social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties.

Common signs of ASD Level 1 in adults include problems with social interaction, a narrow range of interests, and repetitive behaviors or mannerisms.

Trouble With Social Interactions

group of neurodivergent adults sitting and facing each other while working, but experiencing challenges with social interaction.

Adults with ASD Level 1 may have difficulty with social interactions. They may feel socially awkward and have difficulty understanding jokes or sarcasm.

They may also struggle with social rules, such as taking turns in a conversation, when to speak in a group conversation, or how to respond to someone’s social outreach via text message.

Adults with ASD Level 1 may have not learned the “hidden curriculum” of social relationships. This refers to everything people learn about social interactions that they were never explicitly taught. It includes unwritten rules and expectations that people are expected to intuit from their environment.

Challenges in Making or Keeping Friends

two neurodivergent adult talking and laughing together

One of the most common signs of ASD Level 1 in adults is challenges in making and/or maintaining friendships. This is because they may have difficulty understanding social cues or reading nonverbal communication, which can make it difficult to interact with others or understand what others expect from them.

They may also tend to be more literal in their thinking, which can make it hard to understand jokes or sarcasm. In addition, they may be narrowly focused on a specific interest or hobby, which can make it hard to relate to others who don’t share that interest.

They may also struggle to spend time in situations where they might meet others with similar interests due to sensory challenges.

One common myth about people with ASD Level 1 is that they prefer to be alone. People with ASD Level 1 have varying social “appetites” just like anyone else. There are many extroverted autistic people who strongly prefer being around other people, and if their social interactions are strained, this can cause great distress.

Sensory Issues

An adult with autism walking amidst a crowd.

Many adults with ASD Level 1 have pronounced sensory issues. They can be either hyper-sensitive (very sensitive to the slightest input) or hypo-sensitive (craving the input).

This can cause them to strongly like or dislike things such as bright lights, different types of touch like hugs, smells, sounds, crowd noise, or scratchy fabrics to name just a few.

People with autism may also be very picky eaters due to their experience of certain tastes, textures, or smells as highly unpleasant.

In addition to the five senses we learn about in school, there are three others that can be impacted by autism – interoception (what’s happening inside our bodies), proprioception (our position in space), and vestibular (sense of balance).

When these other three senses are impacted, you may experience problems with balance, coordination, or things our bodies tell us like knowing when you are hungry, full, cold, hot, or tired.

Not being able to control one’s environment and the unpleasant sensory input that can occur can lead to anxiety in unfamiliar environments.

Narrow Interests

A video game being played by an adult with autism.

The narrow interests of someone with ASD Level 1 can create obsessions that lead to both positive and negative situations.

When someone is only interested in a few things, they can focus on them for long periods of time and become expert in them. For example, they might be especially interested in video games, math, or collecting certain items.

While these interests can be helpful in some cases – for example, a person with a strong interest in math or history or archeology may excel at that subject in school – they can also cause problems.

A person with a video game obsession may have trouble keeping a job or maintaining friendships because he or she spends too much time playing games instead of interacting with other people.

dice set being played by adult with autism

The flip side of this same trait is that interests can be the keys to friendships and even careers. For example, if you love role playing games, you can make friendships based on this shared interest. Regarding careers, Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the most famous people with autism, found her career through her love of farm animals and engineering more humane ways of handling them.

Trouble With Change

word 'change' spelled using the small letter tiles

As any parent of a child with autism knows, routine is important. It helps to provide a sense of order and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world. For children with autism, routine can help to minimize anxiety and maximize functioning.

However, what happens when children with autism grow up? Do they still need the same level of routine and predictability? The answer appears to be mostly yes.

Many adults with autism report feeling overwhelmed by change. They may have difficulty understanding why a change is taking place, and this can lead to intense anxiety.

In some cases, adults with autism may become so attached to their routines that they are unable to adapt to change at all. While this may seem inflexible, it is important to remember that routine provides a sense of stability for people with autism.

Anxiety and Depression

autistic adult experiencing anxiety and depression

While the exact prevalence is unknown, studies suggest that a significant proportion of the autistic population suffers from anxiety and depression. Years of struggle and not getting one's needs met takes a toll.

Common symptoms of anxiety and depression include persistent worry, low mood, difficulty concentrating, and withdrawal from social activities. They may also experience additional symptoms such as obsessive thoughts, motor tics, and sleeping difficulties.

Struggles With Social, Occupational, or Other Areas of Functioning

autistic adult having trouble maintaining job

If you’re reading this post, you might be thinking, “Okay, I have some of these characteristics, at least to a certain extent. But so do many of the other people I know. How do I know if it’s truly ASD Level 1 - or just a quirk?”

In addition to the main criteria detailed above, physicians, when making a diagnosis of ASD Level 1, will consider how much the symptoms impact everyday life.

Do you have trouble sustaining employment or with basic activities of daily living? Is it challenging for you to maintain a social life or integrate with your community, perhaps despite profound educational achievement?

If so, then you might qualify for a diagnosis of ASD Level 1.

“I Never Had These Symptoms Before - Why Now?”

A final concern you might have is if these symptoms have suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

The short answer - probably not. For a diagnosis of ASD Level 1 in adults, the symptoms must have been present in the early developmental period of your life. However, you may not have noticed that they manifested until later, particularly if you developed strategies to cope with them.

They can also seem to suddenly appear when you reach a stage in life where the expectations change rapidly, like the transition from high school to college, or college to career, or to independent living. Also, a change in circumstances (like a traumatic event) may impact the coping strategies you’ve developed and make those characteristics more pronounced – which is why you’re noticing them now.

The opposite can be true, too, whereby you once noticed these symptoms and no longer do (because you’ve developed certain coping strategies that make the characteristics more manageable and less pronounced).

Final Thoughts

woman with autism walking joyfully in a garden

ASD Level 1 is a lifelong condition that can result in some challenges, but also creates great strengths that can be leveraged.

If you think you or someone you know may have ASD Level 1, whether or not you get a formal diagnosis is a very personal decision.

Many adults experience great self-acceptance and even a sense of vindication upon getting a formal diagnosis, but there is also often a period of adjustment and grieving. Other adults feel their self-acceptable is enough if they don’t require supports at work or therapy that requires a formal diagnosis.

Many adults with ASD Level 1 who are struggling to achieve what they know their true potential is find working with an autism life coach to be a very rewarding experience. With self-understanding, self-acceptance, self-advocacy, and appropriate supports, they can lead fulfilling and successful lives.


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