Mild ASD may show language or learning delays and often are highly gifted in areas such as math, art, music or engineering. However, many report a gap between their intelligence and difficulties with life skills including social interactions.
Autism, as a whole, occurs on a very broad continuum, and the same is true for individuals on the mild end of the scale. However, experts have identified some recurring themes among these uniquely gifted individuals:
- Fixated interests and repetitive behavior
- Inconsistent attention and memory
- Difficulty with reading and following directions
- Inflexible thinking, resistance to change
- Poor planning and time management
- Sensory overload (sound sensitivity, aversion to certain foods, intolerance for textures)
- Problems socializing (awkward mannerisms, inapproriate eye contact, one-sided conversations, inappropriate volume and use of language skills)
- Difficulty learning from mistakes
Individuals with mild ASD also commonly struggle with what we call “pragmatics” – aka the use of appropriate communication in social situations (knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it). Examples of pragmatics might include learning to greet a boss differently than you would a family member, reading the other person’s non-verbal cues and adjusting by tone or volume, or responding to a speaker’s comments appropriately.
Those with mild ASD will hear and process language very literally, often missing sarcasm, irony or subtext. The processing of meaning is often black and white. If we tell a patient they are expected to come in prepared to work through the hour, he may interpret that to mean he cannot take a restroom break, regardless of how badly he needs one. This patient may struggle to correctly interpret other people’s body language or facial expressions, which can lead to frequent misunderstandings.
They may experience a disconnect in how their comments or actions could hurt or offend others. These slights are never deliberate. Instead, this is a phenomenon known as “mind blindness” – in other words, the inability to place themselves in another person’s shoes or navigate the unwritten communication norms that most of us learned early on and now take for granted.
Patients may also avoid self-care behaviors, especially if those behaviors that are uncomfortable to them (remember their heightened sensory sensitivity), or simply don’t seem important to them. A student could be the brightest person in her professor’s organic chemistry course, but get a 40 percent final grade because she doesn’t see the point of attending class or taking tests.