Breakfast and Being “High-Functioning”

by dpreyde

A Guest Post by Patrick Balsillie

There is a restaurant I like to visit before work. My fiancee (Allie) and I share a car, so often when she has to work early, she drops me off so I can enjoy a breakfast and then I walk to work. I like the pace and sound there; there’s an unhurried, gentle hubbub about the place that lets me relax, reflect and generally puts in me in a positive mood.

It was a cool Friday morning she joined me for one such day and we had a conversation. We placed our orders, and the server came back with our drinks. I poured cream in my coffee as Allie told me about something that happened at work.

“So I was in a meeting the other day aaand one of my colleagues was talking about a client of hers and she was saying she had to tell the mother that she thought the kid was autistic. And I forgot? that not everyone thinks autism is awesome. And so when she said that, I was like yay! And everyone looked at me. It was really awkward.”

“Well I think some people tend to think of…(pause)…non-verbal autistic people, they often don’t realize the breadth of autistic experiences. They often don’t know that many on the spectrum are high functioning.”

“Oh, you’re not really supposed to use the term “high-functioning” anymore, because it kind of implies that others are low-functioning. I read an article about it.”

I paused. She was right.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s five years ago, just months before the DSM V replaced the DSM IV and folded Asperger’s into Autism Spectrum Disorder. I was told that the new term for my situation was “high-functioning autism” and haven’t really thought much on it since.

“So what term are you supposed to use?”

“They didn’t really make any recommendations. David has one, he likes the term ‘classic autism’, just like ‘classic’ cars.”

“Huh. Interesting.”

Our server arrived with our meals; I had eggs and toast with hash browns and breakfast sausages.

I don’t usually pay close attention to the latest news in the social justice world about what’s ok to say versus what’s not ok to say. I think society is undergoing massive social changes, and to me the hot topics in the social justice world seem to range from trivialities to important issues. I couldn’t care less whether someone refers to me as ‘an autistic person’ or a ‘person with autism’, but apparently some people have strong feelings about the issue. And yet, I do remember growing as a teenager when an ally called me in on using the phrase “that’s so gay.” That was a common phrase in the halls of my high school, but when pointed out to me how hurtful and perniciously homophobic it was, I stopped.

My guiding principles for the language I use are simple: be courteous and empathetic. No put-downs. It’s not a matter of “causing offense”, it’s a matter of are you punching down at someone with less privilege than you.

I munched on my hash browns and sipped my deliciously creamy coffee.

How would it feel from the perspective of someone who’s “classically” autistic? I have a hard time imagining other people’s perspectives, but I think I would feel frustrated, angry and ashamed. As long as I knew about “high-functioning” autism, “autism” would seem to be “low-functioning autism” with a thin veil of denial. I’ve always been sensitive about my intelligence, and being implicitly labelled “low-functioning” by someone more successful than me would be particularly soul-crushing. Some part of me would come to believe I was doomed to fail where others succeed.

In this case, yes, it seems to me the term “high-functioning” is a clumsy term that inadvertently punches down at classical autistics.

“I think you’re right I probably shouldn’t use the term ‘high-functioning,’ ” I said sipping my coffee. “I won’t use it any more.”

Allie can tell I’m perseverating; she’s often generous in letting me monologue when my special interests are piqued, even though this sort of dialogue-hogging is liable to get you reprimanded or ostracized in most social circles. This is one way she accommodates me on a regular basis and is one of the many things I love about her.

“So why do we have the term high-functioning in the first place? Sure, we may need some term to communicate the breadth of autistic experience, but in what way are we ‘functioning’? It’s not the functioning of our livers, it’s how we function within capitalism. Do you produce more wealth than you consume? Are you able to have a job? Do you blend in well enough to not require (or just not ask for) special accommodation?”

“More coffee?”

“Yes please.”

“We’ll have the bill ready shortly.”

My ideas aren’t wholly persuasive or settled, which is perhaps why I find the topic stimulating.We talk for a while longer about the value of persons outside of economic value. We talk about why each person is intrinsically valuable. Now we are on well-worn ground; as non-sociopaths we instinctively recognize people as intrinsically valuable, and we’ve discussed and debated as amateur moral philosophers together on countless occasions.

This is a good start to a morning. The meal was tasty and filling, and I feel not just refreshed, but slightly newer.

The bill arrives, we pay and leave.