The Myth Of “High Functioning”

You may call someone high functioning, but inside they are a hot mess.

I’ll begin with this.

I get it.

The phraseology of “high functioning” in regards to an autistic person is in the social-ingrained lexicon of society. I can’t be mad when people use it when they don’t know any better. What I can do is work to dispel the myth.

Let’s start with my kid. I know his patterns on how he gets tired and wore out. He’ll get tired faster than I do. That’s what kids do. However, when he does not have the freedom to be himself, you can see those physical signs of being wore out sooner in the day. Let’s use going to church on Sunday morning as an example. He’s not your “perfect” little child who is quiet as a church mouse, but he does fairly well for what he can do. In an hour of this, I see his physical signs of being tired. On a day of his own making, that doesn’t show up until almost dinner time.

Let’s dip in to how it works with me. I can provide you with some more specifics.

  • Eye contact: I can make eye contact with you. But after a few minutes, it physically hurts. I can sustain that eye contact, but my involvement in what’s going on goes down fast.
  • Technology use: If I am in a group meeting setting where I am supposed to be listening to what someone is saying, don’t be surprised if I take out a computer or my smart phone. Yes, technology use is often considered addictive, but that same effect helps occupy enough connections in my head where I actually can listen and focus.
  • Too much chaos, or other negative energy around me: If I am supposed to be focusing and working on something, this is a non-starter for me. The severe nature of negative energy permeates in me and can, if overload occurs, cause a short circuit in my brain.
  • Speaking extemporaneously: Sure, at times I will know something about a subject and can speak at length about it. That’s what you might hear referred to as an “info dump”. I can speak off the cuff about anything, but not often. The pressure of doing so draws that energy from me. Despite of that energy draw, there is no guarantee I can come up with something of any consequence. I do much better writing out my thoughts. I can edit myself.
  • Sound/Noise: For me, the volume of something is not a big deal. The big deal is multiple sources of noise all competing at the same volume level. My brain hears all these sources individually and tries to process them all simultaneously. But it can’t accomplish that. This differs from others who can ignore background noises entirely, banishing them to the singular white noise.
  • Three-dimensional spatial issues: Having someone behind me in most cases is very stressful. It’s not something that will cause a meltdown, but it is something that saps my energy in an exponential manner.

So, some days I can handle this stuff really well (and this is by no means an exhaustive list). Other days, I am not able to handle even half of this. I put my best face on in public, because socially it is not acceptable for things to effect me the way they do. But when I am not in sight, I let go, and sometimes can’t function for a little while.

Every autistic person battles their own issues. Every autistic person has trouble with this social disability. Some of us are just equipped to keep the effects hidden better than others.

You may call someone high functioning, but inside they are a hot mess.


Also published on Medium.