Borderline autism is not a diagnosis — it is an informal term some people may use to describe mild symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Social communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors characterize ASD. While these difficulties may significantly impact some people and require substantial support, others may need little assistance and lead relatively “typical” lives.
Read more about borderline autism, its symptoms, and treatment options.
ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects approximately
Borderline autism is not an official term or diagnosis. Instead, it is an informal term referring to less severe ASD symptoms.
Someone might describe themselves as having borderline autism when:
- they suspect they have traits of ASD but do not have a diagnosis
- they have some symptoms of ASD but do not meet the criteria for ASD
- they have an ASD diagnosis with a severity of level 1
- they received a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder before 2013
- they say they have high functioning autism
- they mask their symptoms
Some individuals use the terms borderline autism, mild autism, Asperger’s, and high-functioning autism interchangeably to identify people with less severe ASD symptoms. None of these conditions have a formally recognized diagnosis.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), there are three severity levels of communication difficulties and behaviors in ASD. These may vary in context and fluctuate over time.
Level 1 encompasses the least severe symptoms requiring some support, while level 3 has the most severe symptoms requiring very substantial support.
Someone with level 1 ASD might say they have borderline autism or mild autism.
Level 1 ASD social communication difficulties may include:
- difficulty initiating social interactions
- atypical or confusing responses when speaking with others
- little interest in social interactions
- difficulty engaging in back-and-forth conversations
- unsuccessful attempts at making and sustaining friendships
Level 1 ASD restrictive, repetitive behaviors may include:
- inflexible behaviors that interfere with functioning in one or more contexts
- difficulty switching between tasks
- issues with planning and organization that hinder independence
Learn more about the different levels of autism.
Symptoms of Aspergers disorder included impairments in social interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. However, unlike autistic disorder, people with Aspergers disorder did not experience language and cognitive developmental delays.
Some people with a former diagnosis of Aspergers disorder may continue to use this term to self-identify, some might say they have borderline autism, and others use the terms interchangeably.
Learn about the differences between autism and Aspergers disorder.
Another informal term people might use is high functioning autism. People sometimes use this colloquially to refer to people with ASD who do not need as much support as others to function in their daily activities. They might also use it to describe individuals with ASD without an intellectual disability.
Many healthcare professionals consider high functioning autism an inappropriate and inaccurate term.
Research from 2019 indicates the term does not reflect the challenges people with ASD experience daily, resulting in unrealistic expectations about their social, occupational, and self-care abilities.
Describing someone with ASD as high functioning dismisses their diagnosis, difficulties, and identity. Using the term low functioning to describe an individual ignores their strengths.
Functioning descriptors may prevent people with ASD from feeling comfortable with their identity and not being their true selves.
Learn more about intellectual disability.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
Unfortunately, most ASD research has focused on males, and there is little research on how the condition affects females.
Healthcare professionals initially developed the screening using male participants, and female symptoms do not always fit into these diagnostic categories.
Behavioral differences between males and females with ASD exist. However, many females with ASD may have difficulty receiving a diagnosis or treatment that works well for them. This may be due to a lack of information because of their exclusion in the research process.
What are the differences?
Sometimes, females with ASD appear to have fewer social difficulties than males.
A 2020 review into female autism found that females are more likely to mask, or camouflage, their autistic traits. The stress of masking symptoms may cause increased anxiety and overwhelm.
People may not notice repetitive behaviors and the highly focused interests characteristic of ASD in females. Examples of stereotypical repetitive behaviors and interests in males with ASD could be rocking or a train fascination. However, these behaviors may present more subtly in females, such as hair twirling and reading books.
Due to the subtlety of their symptoms and not rigidly conforming to the criteria of ASD, some females may think they have borderline symptoms of ASD and not seek out the support they require.
If a person suspects they have symptoms of ASD, they should speak with a healthcare professional. They can help a person navigate the diagnostic process and rule out similar conditions.
Additionally, if someone has an ASD diagnosis and their symptoms are causing them significant daily disruption, they should speak with a healthcare professional to discuss management strategies and support options.
Learn about online diagnostic tests.
Borderline autism is not an official diagnosis. It is an informal term some people use to describe the milder symptoms of ASD, such as when they have level 1 severity for ASD symptoms.
Some individuals use the term interchangeably with mild autism, Aspergers disorder, and high functioning autism — none of which are stand-alone conditions.
Individuals may also say they have borderline autism when they have some traits of ASD but have never had a formal diagnosis or have had ASD assessments but have not met the criteria for an ASD diagnosis.