Breaking news since I wrote this: the denier in chief who mocks his opponent for wearing a mask has tested positive for COVID 19. Although I wish everyone who contracts this horrible disease a speedy recovery, this development only further makes my point…
Low functioning and high functioning are common terms used to describe people with autism, terms I have always loathed, and since 2016, have found especially annoying. “High functioning” is generally used to refer to those who are fully verbal or have Aspberger syndrome (a previously used diagnosis for those with strong verbal language skills and intellectual ability that since 2013 became part of the umbrella diagnosis of autism)
and “low functioning” for those who are non-verbal. These phrases are troublesome for several reasons. First, they are not official
diagnoses or medical terms and they are not useful or in many cases even accurate. People with what is called high functioning autism often have debilitating social anxiety, among other challenges. And lots of non-verbal individuals are capable of functioning just fine for the most part. Everyone is different and using terms like low and high functioning is reductive and dismissive of each individual’s unique make up, their strengths as well as weaknesses.
Years ago I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years and when I told him V had autism he responded “I don’t know anything about autism (disturbing in itself considering he was the lead counsel in the largest school system in the country) but I’ve heard kids are high or low functioning. Which do you have?” It was like asking if your baby was cute or ugly. And I had to explain that V didn’t have much expressive language but he understood a lot and functioned fine in many ways. He’s a smart self-assured kid. The more helpful and accurate terms for V and those like him is that he has severe autism and needs more supports in order to navigate the world.
Since the last painful election and the ensuing 3 ½ years, I’d like to see the term low functioning retired as a descriptor for people on the spectrum and instead be reserved for individuals who have traits that prevent them from functioning as decent human beings. Narcissism. Lack of self esteem that expresses itself through bullying and vengeance. Lying as a matter of course to the point that the person doesn’t know truth from fiction. Lack of empathy – an utter inability to put yourself in others’ shoes or imagine what their lives are like.
During this week’s debate one of the participant’s was the poster child for low-functioning. He couldn’t follow basic rules, interrupting every chance he got. He was belittling and bullying and mean-spirited and mendacious and incapable of connecting with ideas or people – either the other person on stage, the moderator, the small live audience or the much larger one struggling to watch what was best described as a shitshow.
I winced my way through the first excruciating hour and fell asleep with the TV on, only to wake up at 3 in the morning with knots in my stomach. I somehow was able to fall back asleep for a few hours, until V woke up. He got himself dressed, came downstairs for breakfast, and then I set him up for virtual learning, which requires lots of effort on my part to keep him focused. He does need a lot of help. And yet, he’s engaged and curious, kind and compassionate, incapable of lying or deceit. I have plenty of weaknesses and lapses of my own but I like to think that I share those better qualities.
And I will do all I can to have a fully functioning adult elected once again.