Do you ever wonder how you can tell if someone with autism is “high-functioning” or “low-functioning”? Do you have a friend or colleague with an autistic child, and don’t know how to get more details about what level they’ve been diagnosed with? Don’t know how to ask those penetrating questions to appease your curiosity? Can’t quite figure out the tell-tale signs of those two, distinct categories?
Say no more, fam.
Step 1: Don’t ask those questions. Find new questions. Better questions.
I’ll help. My child has autism.
Autism is not a diagnosis with a standardized, by-the-book plan of treatment. In fact, it’s one of the most complicated neurodiversities out there, and the information we have about it changes all the time. Let’s start with the easiest myth to squash: Autism is not linear. People on the spectrum do not come with a dot that is firmly placed somewhere along this imaginary line that someone created. Every single person on this planet is good at something, whether they live with autism or not. Calling someone “high-functioning” implies that other people exist who are “low-functioning”. Imagine someone asking if your neurotypical child is “low-functioning” because he failed his driver’s test four times, or she’s behind in reading and needs extra help. Chances are pretty good that you’d have a quick retort to that assumption.
Instead of assuming that autism is linear, try to think of it as a sound mixing board. Even better, remember that those settings can change every day, and even several times a day.
The settings are different for each child, too. Instead of volume, treble, bass, fade, or echo, an autistic child’s board might have settings for verbal communication, stimming, sleep, tolerance for clothing or food textures, attention span, fearlessness, the need for routine, the need for organization, sensitivity to loud noises or crowds, social cues, or eye contact.
The whole idea of “low-functioning” or “high-functioning” relies on a function – the presence of a task. What do you need her to do? Need her to read a chapter book and present a verbal book report to her 2nd-grade class? Nah, she’s not ready for that. Need turn-by-turn directions to the closest Chick-fil-A? Even in a town she’s only been to once? She’s your gal. Need her to dress herself without assistance? Sure thing! (As long as you don’t mind going to dinner with a fairy, witch, astronaut, or pirate – this girl LOVES costumes.) Need her to help you burn 500 calories? She’s definitely up to that task.
Need her to order her own food at a restaurant? Not yet. She’s not a musical or math prodigy – at least not yet – and we don’t have to deal with grocery store or restaurant meltdowns too often anymore. We did for a while. Some families still do. Hold your judgment when you see a meltdown you don’t understand, because of everyone involved, you know the least about what’s going on. I apologize if that’s a tough pill to swallow, but… you. know. the. least. Sometimes, parents just need to know they are doing a good job.
Our daughter is a joy-bringer who thrives on routine, and her mixer setting for organization is always on the highest setting. She’s not a great sleeper, but she is a wonderful snuggler. We don’t have to deal with the challenges that come with loud noise sensitivity, so she doesn’t wear headphones. Her fearlessness is unbridled, and we have to keep an eye on her in dangerous situations – like around water, cliffs, or at the zoo. She’s one-of-a-kind, and not like any other person you’ve ever met. She’s not low-functioning or high-functioning. She’s just autistic.
Maybe the bigger question here is this: Why are you asking? Is there a legit reason for asking tough questions, or are you just curious? Curiosity is fine, but being able to say “What are his/her favorite things?” or “What did you guys do this weekend?” are much more palatable ways of learning about your friend’s day-to-day.
My best friend asking questions about specific behaviors so that she can interact best with her is much different than getting those questions from a complete stranger with a simple macabre curiosity. Wondering if it’s appropriate to invite their child to a swim party or loud concert? The answer is yes – always invite them, and know that the parents will determine if they can attend or not. Have your children intentionally interact with neurodiverse friends, or friends with physical differences, or friends who rely on assistive devices. Teach them that everyone has gifts to give the world. Be the example.
In short, when is inclusion not the right answer? It’s just autism, after all.
“High-functioning means your deficits are ignored,
and low-functioning means your assets are ignored.”