I was in my car one day thinking about autism. I can't remember what I was reading or listening to that sparked my mental ramble, but it led me to explore the idea of high functioning vs low functioning - commonly used (though controversial) terms to categorize people on the autism spectrum.
It's possible that it was sparked by listening to NeuroTribes. Reading about children who were assessed early in life with IQs in the range of 150, who lived for decades as misunderstood humans, but were then relegated to custodial care in institutions where their IQ assessments eventually show a drop to the level of "low-grade moron", the relativity of functional abilities becomes clear. If you don't use it, you lose it came to mind. These children had potential for great things and it was heartbreakingly squandered by a system that didn't even try to understand them.
For a neurotypical individual (someone without developmental disorder/delays who mostly falls into established norms), we know that most thrive in the right environment, with the right challenges extended to them. Yet it's taken generations for this realization to become mainstream philosophy and practice for autistic and other special needs individuals.
It's not surprising that many parents of children perceived as "low functioning" balk at the term being applied to their child.
Neurotypical children are often lauded for their talents and gifts in academics and sports. A well-rounded experience is encouraged through peer pressure - other parents and kids. Parents are urged to support their children's interests when a child demonstrates certain proclivities.
But the reality is that every child is different - in personality, interests, intelligence, academic ability, and physical ability. Yet we look for the strengths in neurotypical children without focusing on the areas of weakness unless required.
My biology bust
Personally, my greatest area of weakness academically was biology. To my utter shame and embarrassment (to this day - I can't believe I'm putting this on the internet), it was the only class I received a D in during my years in high school as my six-week grade (my semester average still came out to a B - whew), and I put effort in to get that D.
My dad was fairly amused one night when he found me recording myself reading the chapters I was studying before a test. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was going to play it as I fell asleep to see if it would help.
It didn't. Even worse, I was so intimidated by the teacher that I had no intention of asking for help from her, even though I really needed it.
Should I be labeled low functioning because I failed so spectacularly to understand and regurgitate the ins and outs of the Krebs cycle and other internal body systems? Or should my "gifted" label have been stripped from my file? Or, as I did, resign myself to the fact that I would never be a Biologist? (I was good with that.)
Humans are unique, therefore, norms have limited value
Judging neurotypical kids against norms is often unfair, but it's even worse to judge children on the spectrum or with other neurological disorders against norms and widely accepted societal expectations.
Instead of deeming a child who has challenges with self-care "low functioning", identify their areas of strength. Maybe they embody one autistic stereotype and have mathematical strengths that will benefit society in some way. Or perhaps they have artistic gifts that will bring themselves and others pleasure.
We don't expect a GPS unit to work well as a computer - it's not equipped with the right programming, operating system, or hardware to do the job of a computer.. Why, then, would we try to force human beings who are born with unique gifts and abilities to be able to do something they aren't wired to do?
What does the person with autism excel at and love to do?
My son is into gaming for now. He's told me many times that he wants to build video games and gaming systems. Within reason, I'm happy to support these interests. Maybe one day he'll work for a company like Microsoft, Nintendo, or Electronic Arts. (He has big plans to re-launch the Sega Genesis and finally make Sonic 06 a game worth playing rather than a game worth ridicule.)
He blows me away with the extent of his knowledge and dedication to learning about his interests. I hope that he always has people close to him who appreciate the gift he is as a person, and the strengths he brings to the world rather than rating him based on unfair expectations.
Being different. Having special needs. Excelling at unexpected skills.
There's nothing wrong with any of these things, especially when we focus on people and not behaviours we don't understand.