“You’re obviously high-functioning autistic, though, right?”


I never know how to answer that question. Mostly because it’s a bullshit question. Today, I am not functioning very highly at all. I got up, woke up the kids, showered, and walked them to school. I spoke the entire way there, reassuring an anxious child that school would be okay today, and that they could do it. I left the school, and haven’t said a word since. 

This weekend, I was in a situation where I had to disclose my autism during a training session that had gone right off the rails for me. I was unable to attend to anything by that point because of my sensory defensiveness, and was struggling with a migraine, to boot. When I was required to figure out where to stand based on which metaphor resonated most with me as a response to a question, I was done. I sat down, disengaged, and waited for the activity to end. When the trainer asked for feedback, I explained that I was unable to participate in the activity because thinking in metaphors is a challenge on a good day and impossible on the day in question. 

And so she stated that I must be high-functioning. Because how else could I be in a teacher certification program? How else could I have been actively participating up to this point? How else could I not be rocking in a corner, banging my head against a wall? (believe me – that’s pretty close to what I wanted to be doing by then, but, well, time and place, right?) 

a) It’s none of your fucking business where my levels of “function” vs. “dysfunction” lie, unless it is directly relevant to you and unless I am comfortable sharing that information; 

b) I don’t think we have the same definition of “function.” My being able to play the neurotypical game doesn’t mean it doesn’t cost me more than I can afford at times. Yes, I am capable of accomplishing tasks in the way that the NT world requires. Can I do it at a sustained level without break? Not so well. 

Today, I’m at home, in bed. The last four days, I dealt with mind-killing pain. I walked for an hour and a half this morning, and can barely type this post now. “Too much” is relative, but wow, have I gone long past its definition for me. 

The kids’ll be home in 2 hours, and the one task I said I would do, I haven’t. I will do my best to turn on again for them when they come home, because while they get the need for quiet disengagement, they also need me to be present in ways that can feel like too much on days like today. 

Pushing through really hard stuff doesn’t make me more functional than those who avoid or melt down. I *want* to avoid. I *want* to melt down. It takes an astonishing amount of energy to force myself to stay “appropriately” engaged. Inevitably, I pay for it. In, as it goes, sweat. 

So, no. I am not high-functioning. I function. And then I don’t. Repeat repeat repeat. 

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13 Comments

  1. Nomad said,

    December 10, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Yes. True.

    I do “break into rocking” when it is too much for me to take.

  2. DNAislife said,

    December 12, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Thank you for this post. I attend classes at a large university and struggle every day to not melt down til I get home and I am in a comfortable place. I appreciate your candor!

  3. Jean Swent said,

    December 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    My 11 year old is the same way with school and I always get asked if he is high functioning.. He functions decently at school and then we see the result at home. Sometimes he does not last a full day. I am glad to know that others are the same way.

  4. Sabrina said,

    December 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Thank you for saying what I am too overloaded to explain to someone once again. So I sent this email. I appreciate your voice. BTW I am a workshop leader myself and I “out” myself at the beginning of my workshops and invite others to let me know if they are feeling challenged in my sessions.

  5. Ruth said,

    December 12, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Thank you for putting your experience into words. It so helps me “get” my ds and my dh!

  6. Vanessa Brotto said,

    December 12, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Beautifully written and having an aspy child I have nothing but admiration for all your wonderful abilities to FUNCTION when obviously you are fighting your natural instincts to run, avoid, shut down. Dont be so hard on yourself, looks like you are succeeding more often than not, which takes great control and energy. Hope your migrane goes soon.

  7. Kristi said,

    December 12, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    I may not have ASD but my fibromylagia feels just like this most days…instead of high functioning, we hear, “you dont look sick” or “you look like your feeling better” …the answer is- NO, just because I am pushing through the pain, fatigue, fog and am trying to listen to you babble while this sweater I am wearing feels like sand paper up against my skin doesnt mean I am feeling better..it is so hard for people to empathize…ironic, wouldnt you say. Another irony, I have been working in the field of Autism for 20 plus years and I am actually thunking of leaving because I am sick of the attitudes that my clients should just stop it…

  8. Katy said,

    December 12, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    “The difference between high-functioning and low-functioning is that high-functioning means your deficits are ignored, and low-functioning means your assets are ignored.” Laura Tisoncik

  9. Steph Abbott said,

    December 13, 2012 at 12:26 am

    Great post!

  10. Lucy said,

    December 13, 2012 at 4:43 am

    I hate it when people say that I am high functioning because it feels like they are saying ‘you’re high functioning so why are you acting so autistic?’ It’s almost become an insult to me!

  11. December 13, 2012 at 6:10 am

    Excellent, exactly! you have just voiced perfectly how I feel too sometimes and no one realizes it’s relentless, this work.

  12. Mark Ure said,

    December 13, 2012 at 6:14 am

    Another piece of evidence that Simon Baron-Cohen is obviously wrong.

  13. Colin Bowman said,

    December 13, 2012 at 8:32 am

    So well captured and expressed. It seems to me that what we bring to the support of our children (as parents or professionals) in their autistic aspect, is what we wring out of our own experience of this same aspect in ourselves.


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