In the context of my service with autistic adults, I often hear the question from the public- and I’ve heard it so, so many times, is- so, you just work with “high functioning people with autism”? And I usually answer with - I don’t cherry pick who the Universe sends me to help, I work with everyone who needs me.
Aside from the strange, awkward verbiage of the general “autism culture”, the lie of the term “high functioning / low functioning autistic persons”, has been pervasive, allowed to stain the page of every conversation on neurodiversity since it was first uttered.
Where did the term “high functioning, low functioning” in autism originate?
In Europe, nearly eighty years ago, Dr. Hans Asperger was faced with a terrible dilemma. The pioneering researcher on autism was being watched intently by the Nazis, enduring visits from the Gestapo, and he was well aware of the threat of the eradication of his young autistic patients.
In the beginning, the Nazis quietly, methodically killed all visibly disabled persons they could find, and then once in power, were publicly merciless. The day was coming, and they were going to kill all of Asperger’s “little professors”.
So, condemn him or not- he made a wretched choice, telling the Nazis his “high functioning” patients would make perfect code-breakers, problem solvers to help all those snappily dressed murderers win World War II, and thus he- a heroic wretch, sealed the fate of the “Low Functioning” autistic patients in his care.
Was he- Dr. Hans Asperger a monster? A Nazi collaborator, a sympathizer? I really don’t know, but I’m going to tell you clearly- for my part, I’d not wish to have the threat of torture, death held over my head, the heads of all my friends, family and colleagues. Asperger was a brilliant, hunted, haunted man. And we know from what he did leave behind- he was a man who cared deeply about autistic persons.
High functioning, low functioning.
I’m tired of hearing the wretched language. Those ignorant words are stained with the blood of many innocent lives, and those who use the terms only demonstrate their deep ignorance of not only the past, but of the future as well.
As the Father of three autistic persons, and the Founder of a non-profit organization dedicated to the mission of serving autistic adults, socially, occupationally and relationally, I have something to say.
At the core of my own understanding, I sincerely believe all persons- regardless of their unique neurological processing- the shape, form of their bodies, are fully human persons, and are all worthy of dignity, respect as human persons.
This is my fundamental position, and it colors every single interaction I have with my fellow human beings, regardless of their differing abilities.
Look, there is no way to avoid it- either you are going to question the legitimacy of autistic persons to qualify as your version of human, or you are going to believe all of us- everyone, may actually be “uniquely human”, as Dr. Barry Prizant, Steve Silberman and I believe.
Allow me for a moment to dive in deep at the very marrow of these often wasteful banterings on “high functioning / low functioning” places of worth in our human condition.
Last week, I looked into the eyes of a couple who made it clear to me they are firmly against the belief autistic persons have been present throughout human history, predating diagnostics, vaccines and everything else. They believe, against all actual scientific proof, MMR vaccinations are responsible for the neurological condition of autism.
Aside from their wrongheadedness on vaccinations, which is now costing many children in our communities dearly, what bothered me most deeply was their arrogance. When I made an attempt to tell them of the worth of even intellectually disabled autistic persons, they recoiled at the idea.
They told me their own autistic child, now an adult- proudly told them, thanks to their aggressive “treatments” he’d “beat autism”. I didn’t have the heart to tell them- their son was born an autistic person, and he would leave this life as an autistic person.
Autism is not a disease to be cured. It is a lifelong neurological condition, a naturally occuring variance in human neurological function. And I personally believe autism is a gift to humanity.
We’re all- on some level, desperate to find a place of recognition as human persons. The truth of it is this- we are all, from the most profoundly intellectually disabled of persons to the most savvy, poster-boys and girls of success, all worthy of the mantle and designation of human personhood.
One of my favorite human beings, the Dalai Lama, made it clear in this piece, we are all- called upon to embrace the concept, our own bookmark in our wonderful place in the presence of full humanity.
If you wish to walk away from the growth of our own consciousness, your unique place in the human tribe, then so be it. You may accept your bookmark of solidarity in selfhood, and find belonging there. Sweet isolation, I suppose.
However, you may choose to step into a broader view of understanding of humanity. You may find yourself questioning the presupposition of persons held to valuation based on their bodies, their unique neurology. If so, then you have found belonging with me-and many others in the growing Neurodiversity movement.
If you are someone who cannot wait to throw it into my face- you are the parent of someone who is of profound intellectual disability, an autistic person, then I find little cause to debate you on the call to understanding neurodiversity. I’ll not attempt to scale the walls of close mindedness.
Sadly, I will only offer the point- many people I know are burdened with a multiplicity of physical encumbrances. There are people who are intellectually disabled who are autistic, and there are people who are non-autistic who are also intellectually disabled.
Autistic people suffer physical ailments, have mental health issues- just like the non-autistic human population does.
Regardless, I will ask you to at least entertain the idea the neurodivergent person(s) you love, you may know -may be uniquely-abled rather than simply disabled.
One of my autistic adult clients, someone who struggles mightily with social constructs, is deeply misunderstood, and lives a quiet life in a back room of her family home, showed me her art. The art itself, while expressive, didn’t arouse my interest in any way.
However, when she showed me the jewelry she’d made, I was astounded at the beauty, the artistry of her work. As a visual thinker, her mind is high octane fuel for her craftsmanship. But you wouldn’t know it was there unless you search for it.
My appreciation for her craft, her creations, her personhood, brought out a radiant smile, one I’ll be carrying with me for a rainy day.
While the culture seeks to assign human value based on warped imagery, I’m left with believing each of us, in some way is a work of infinite value, a unique piece of craftsmanship, one of priceless value in the human tribe.
Copyright © by J. David Hall, Life Guides for Autism | NeuroGuides (2019)