Functioning - does it matter?

Functioning. It’s a concept that as someone on the autistic spectrum, it’s impossible to get away from. Rightly or wrongly it is how we are judged, it becomes sort of like a sub-label to our autism. So what does it mean?

Functioning effectively means the extent we’re able to pass as ‘normal’. I am high functioning, I am able to understand non-autistics relatively well by autistic standards, I have a degree, I’ve generally learned not to melt down in public or do other things that would get the wrong kind of attention from non-autistics.

Lower functioning autistics don’t find it so easy to fit in. They may stim in ways that can be distracting. Looking after themselves may take up so much energy that they’re unable to hold a conversation to even high-functioning autistic standards. They may have bigger sensory issues than higher functioning autistics. They are the ones that are more likely to get into trouble.

Relatively straightforward right…well this article suggests not neccersarilly. Here we have an autistic woman who seemingly describes two different autistic women…and then says that they are both, in effect, her. Except that one is seemingly high-functioning and one is seemingly low-functioning.

So how can that be possible? From a high-functioning perspective…well maintaining that level of function takes up a significant amount of energy. I run out of that energy…due to tiredness, anxiety or hunger and it gets fairly obvious. My conversation skills plummet, my sensory issues heighten, my speech goes all over the place…this can get messy.

So why use these labels in the first place? Because…quite frankly…they are still relevant. My best is still consistently better than the best of some other autistics overall…though that doesn’t meant to say that lower-functioning autistics don’t  also have their strengths…get to know them and you’ll be able to work out what they are. No one on the autistic spectrum should be written off completely.

Surely though…those labels are divisive? OK…maybe. To me, everyone on the autistic spectrum is like part of a second family but we are not saints. We judge each other by functioning as much as any non-autistic judges us. Lower functioning autistics can and have been excluded from social groups by higher-functioning autistics.

Why? Here lies the rub. From a higher-functioning perspective…dealing with non-autistics takes up energy…but dealing with lower-functioning autistics also takes up energy and some higher-functioning autistics may not feel they should have to deal with lower-functioning autistics when they find non-autistics to be draining enough. I’m not saying its right, I’m saying it happens.

The curse of the high-functioning autistic can be in finding the right kind of support or even in some cases, working out what that is, particularly if you have other issues on top of the autism that you might want to resolve.

The curse of the lower-functioning autistic is probably finding any support at all, as we’ve covered…non-autistics may write them off and higher-functioning autistics may be constrained by their own limitations. There has to be some way of resolving this particular issue but I suspect it’ll take a long time.

One further issue when it comes to functioning. I have seen multiple higher-functioning autistics drop in functioning over the years. Why? Not sure, in some cases it may be down to trauma…but you suddenly see these people make mistakes that they didn’t used to make regarding social interaction and awareness. This worries me a lot, partly for my own sake, the only obvious thing stopping myself from going down that road at some point is seeing this happen to others. Maybe that’s enough to guard against it – time will tell.

Bottom line is though, that while “functioning” labels are still somewhat relevant…they should not be written in stone. They only give the roughest guide to the strengths and weaknesses of anyone on the autistic spectrum.  As we’ve established…functioning can and does vary depending on the circumstances that the individual is in.