High-Functioning Autism and Social Coping Mechanisms

           Social situations are difficult for people on the autism spectrum, especially those diagnosed with high-functioning autism (HFA). Their difficulty in reading social cues often leaves them feeling lost and overwhelmed. While there’s no “cure” for HFA, many find ways to cope that allow them to interact with others successfully.

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           For many HFA people, finding a way to identify and interpret social cues is key. For example, Amy Gravino, an assistant professor of special education at the City University of New York who studies coping mechanisms for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), told Spectrum that her son’s teacher “created visual charts for him on the whiteboard in class to help him understand when it’s time to raise his hand, turn in work, clean up, etc.”

Gravino also spoke of her son’s fascination with weather patterns. “He loves predicting the weather; he can tell you what the temperature will be for the next seven days,” she said. This type of information is useful for understanding social cues. For example, a group of people standing outside in the cold might be waiting to go inside for a party or get-together. A person can’t simply walk up and ring the doorbell without making others wait, so they might get out of the way by going back to their cars or finding somewhere warm to sit while they wait.

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Gravino also noted her son’s fascination with animals, especially dogs. She said that many of his coping mechanisms are interests that he’s held for a long time, “like dinosaurs, or trains, or anything that has a strong visual image for him.”

           Another common coping mechanism is to find an occupation that allows one to use their interests. “Dr. Temple Grandin, who herself has autism and was the first autistic woman to receive a Ph.D., talks about how important working was for her,” said Laura Shreiner, who holds a master’s degree in special education and is on the spectrum herself. Shreiner says that Grandin “found her true calling in college and has been working ever since,” even though she was told she couldn’t go to college and would be lucky to get a job at a local grocery store.”

           Support groups can be very beneficial for those diagnosed with HFA, too. “Support groups helped me learn how others cope and allowed me to ask questions and share my opinions,” Shreiner said. Research has shown that the majority of adults on the spectrum aren’t part of any ASD-related support group, even though they say it would benefit them greatly.

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           Grandin said that group support “helps a lot because someone who’s been there and done that can mentor you.” She also recommends taking classes, going to conferences, and reading books by people on the spectrum. Because everyone is different, what works for one person may not work as well for another.

“High-functioning autism is a diagnosis that people are born with, but it is very treatable through therapy, support groups, and coping mechanisms,” said Shreiner. “None of my coping mechanisms worked at first; they had to be implemented over time.”

“I believe the most important thing for individuals on the spectrum or with any disability is to find something that they are passionate about,” Shreiner noted. “For me, that is teaching.”

           Many studies have shown that the majority of adults on the spectrum are unemployed or underemployed. Gravino said she believes this is due to a lack of support for HFA people in finding employment. She says her son tried community college, but “he didn’t have the social maturity to cope with that.” However, he is now employed by a private company after getting out of high school and receiving vocational training.

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           The severity of HFA varies from person to person. Gravino said her son’s ASD diagnosis was made at age seven, “but I would say he was born with it. He struggled socially from a very young age.”

           Shreiner, who is the mother of an autistic child, said that her son also has social struggles, and “he’s currently attending a school for kids on the spectrum where he’s thriving and doing very well.” She says this is because his teachers understand autism, and the school has a strong support system. Her son has “friends and is making great strides with his social interactions.”

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