On autistic levels of functioning
(I did not write this, I don’t know who did, and I’ve tried to find out to no avail. I found it on Biodiverse Resistance, where shiva was trying to find out who wrote it, but there’s no public answer.)
We can all agree that to properly fight for our rights as autistic people, that we have to put forward our own perspective on what autism is and what it means to be autistic, one that challenges the notions put forward by the medical establishment. If we instead accept the medical ideas behind autism then we will end up agreeing, to a greater or lesser extent, to our continued marginalisation. One of the most important issues here is about levels of functioning - low-functioning versus high-functioning, and the related issue of Aspergers Syndrome versus ‘classic’ autism. Exploring this topic shows why it is so important to challenge conventional views of autism.
Conventional thought sees Aspergers Syndrome and ‘classic’ autism as related but different things. People with Aspergers are seen as having many autistic traits, but not the global learning and communication that people with ‘classic’ autism have (or rather supposedly have). In fact, Aspergers is frequently seen as implying high intelligence. Therefore, conventional thought sees the possibility that people with Aspergers could in most cases quite easily become part of society, and indeed may due to their intelligence and strong interests be particularly useful to society and develop useful specialist skills. On the other hand, people with ‘classic’ autism, whether deemed ‘high-functioning’ or ‘low-functioning’, are widely seen as being much more disabled, and having much less potential for independence or contributing to the world.
We’ll leave aside the fact that all this stuff about measuring people in terms of how much they are able to ‘contribute’ as opposed to ‘be a burden’ is in itself deeply prejudiced. Instead, let’s concentrate on the point that these divisions are actually artificial stereotypes - labels placed on people by the medical establishment to divide people up into those deemed ‘less’ or ‘more’ disabled. In accepting these, we are going to accept the argument put forward by, for example, Treating Autism and their allies, who argue that ‘high-functioning’ autistics and Aspies are not really that disabled and are therefore not ‘really’ autistic, as opposed to their ‘low-functioning’ children, who will need treatment in order to have a decent life.
In fact, there is no clear division between Aspergers and autism, and equally no clear division between high and low functioning. Autistics can be very high-functioning, or very low-functioning, it’s true, but they can be simultaneously high and low functioning in different ways. There are cases of severely autistic people who have ended up, for instance, working for a university department (Amanda Baggs now at MIT on a p/t basis, Michelle Dawson on a regular and fully contributing (but unpaid?) basis, or on the governing board of organisations (Larry Bisonette at AutCom) demonstrating that the severity of the autism is not a barrier to being able to participate. Both individuals, incidentally, are firmly pro-neurodiversity in their outlook. Undoubtedly, autistic people have differing needs, with some being unable to talk and look after themselves, and others having no such difficulties. However, there is no point at which autism becomes too severe to be included in our movement.
Finally, another issue should also be considered. Of those labelled ‘low-functioning’ and whose ability to deal with the world appears to be genuinely compromised, how much of this is due to autism and how much to the way society reacts to it? If the reaction of society to a severely autistic person is to write them off and decide they have no capacity to develop, or worse, to pathologise whatever abilities they do have, it’s very likely the end result will be a psychologically wrecked human being. We have all seen the pictures of the Romanian orphanages where unwanted children were dumped by their parents - some of these children showed clear signs of being deeply disabled, yet in many cases were only suffering from neglect. In our society, autistics frequently suffer depression, self-loathing, mental illness, behaviour problems e.g. aggression, and so on. These are not part of the autism itself, but the result of society’s oppressive and discriminatory practices towards people on the spectrum. Prof. Rita Jordan, in a paper published on the AWARES website, argues that autistics should be said to have an Autistic Spectrum Condition, irrespective of severity, until they come into contact with a hostile society, at which point it becomes an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. I think this may be a much better, more ‘liberationist’ model to adopt than that of low and high functioning.