We like to divide people into neat little categories. These categories serve as shorthand for getting to know others. In this case the people being divided up are autistic. People rely a high functioning/low functioning distinction to describe a person’s perceived place on the autism spectrum. High functioning is shorthand for “can pass as not autistic at first glance.” Low functioning is shorthand for “not passing as anything but autistic anytime soon.” These two categories also serve as stand ins for verbal and nonverbal respectively when is comes to communicating with others.
The high/low divide presumes that the autism spectrum is linear. It is not. The autism spectrum is multidimensional. It is as complex as people are. Thus far the best science tells us that autism touches on every aspect of human biology that we know makes us who we are. Autistic can’t be reduced to a linear division of function, but people try anyway.
The linear high/low gradient comes in handy for pitting the different needs of autistic people against each other. A focal point of the divide is communication. An autistic person able to utilize verbal communication is deemed to not have it that bad, not be truly autistic or to be “pretending to be just like those who have incredible difficulty.” Those who do not utilize verbal communication are portrayed in the worst light while at the same being venerated as truly autistic. Such an attitude of placing nonverbal autistic people on a pedestal while dismissing the needs of other autistic people serves only to disenfranchise all autistic people.
With the growth of internet access, smart phones, and the rise of social media autistic people, including many nonverbal autistics, have proven themselves blisteringly articulate with the spoken and written word. They hold nothing back in their criticism of what they’ve endured in the name of addressing their autism At the same time, they offer hope and encouragement to parents of the next generation of autistic people.
Yet the voices of autistic people continue to be set aside. Either because they are perceived as not autistic enough or too autistic to have an opinion of their own. As someone advocating for the respect and dignity of all people with autism this is a disheartening. What are people advocating for if the voices of autistic people aren’t engaged in their communities? Will my children be heard when they speak up for themselves? Or will they be dismissed because the gatekeepers deem them to be not the right kind of autistic?
Comparing autistic people to each other leading to the invalidating of another’s experience is unacceptable. High or low functioning is a measure of how much work a neurotypical person thinks they must do to relate or communicate with an autistic person. Every autistic voice needs to be included in the conversation about autistic people regardless of outside perceptions of a person’s functioning.