High and low

People, especially medical professionals, are very fond of saying that real autism is nothing at all like how it’s depicted in Rain Man, the famous 1988 film with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.

Guess what? I disagree.

In this clip, Ray (Dustin Hoffman) is trying to explain to his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) why he’s not comfortable wearing the pair of underwear his brother gave him. He always wears boxer shorts and these are Hanes. They’re too tight. They’re not comfortable. So he didn’t put them on. He tries to explain which kind of underwear he prefers, but gets stuck on saying which ones he always buys, the boxer shorts at K-Mart. And so Charlie ends up screaming at him that it doesn’t matter where he buys his underwear. “What difference does it make?! UNDERWEAR IS UNDERWEAR!”

No it isn’t. Even neurotypical people have their preferences. Some people can’t stand boxer shorts. Some people hate lacey knickers. Some people prefer cotton, others prefer synthetic fibers which have more stretch. Loose or tight, sexy or functional. We’ve all tried out different types and settled onto something we like to wear.

The difference between autistic people and non-autistic people is that deviating from our preferences is really hard for many of us. Either it’s because our routine gets interrupted, which means we need some time adapting to the new situation. Or our sensory processing difficulties make it impossible to think of anything but the unpleasantness of this strange fabric against our skins. It’s like having an itch you can’t scratch. There comes a point where you can’t think of anything else, let alone focus on what someone else is saying.

And when you’re speaking a different language, when you don’t know the “normal” way of explaining this, you get accused of making a big fuss about nothing, like Ray.

That’s why I actually recognise so much about this scene. This is a fairly spot-on example of what autistic people deal with every day, down to the anger and frustration of the neurotypical people around them. Of course it’s fictionalised and overcharged, because hey, it still has to be entertainment. But it’s not as inaccurate as the medical professionals often claim it is.

Maybe because Ray is visibly autistic. He’s what is often referred to as low functioning. And low functioning is bad. It gets you institutionalised and treated like a child, incapable of making rational decisions.

Guess what? I can be low functioning too.

Other people will say I’m not at all like Rain Man. I own my own house. I work 40 hours a week. I have a higher income than most people I know. I don’t receive any government assistance or disability benefits. I go to parties and socialise with coworkers and do my own grocery shopping and meet up with friends for drinks and even go on holiday by myself. That’s so high functioning that nobody believes me when I say I am autistic.

I will say that I am like Rain Man. That is why I posted a video of me being nearly non-verbal. That is why I showed how much trouble I have keeping my house clean. That is why I wrote an angry post about peeing myself in public.

Triplets eating lunch on a couch

We are alike © Msphotographic – Dreamstime.com

I am both. It depends on the activity (I’m crap at paying bills, I’m good with shopping on a budget). It depends on circumstances (I’m fine on the phone when it’s work related, I try to postpone personal phone calls as long as possible). It depends on how much I’ve forced myself to go beyond my comfort zone lately. Functioning on a neurotypical level takes a lot of effort for me, which means I run out of spoons faster than you’d expect.

So if I can be both, what exactly do high or low functioning labels mean? Have we really looked at a person’s strengths before labelling them low functioning? Or do we just look at the obvious symptoms that set them apart from neurotypical people?

Do we judge people only on either being visibly or invisibly autistic?

Guess what? I think the answer to that last question is yes. And that is why I reject functioning labels. Because it says nothing about my functioning. It only describes what others think of me.

If you know of any other insightful posts on this subject, please let me know in the comments! Shameless self-promotion is allowed as well!

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