Tag Archives: high functioning


“You’re lucky he’s so high-functioning.” – people who mean well


I’ve heard it a few times over the years. And I’ve never been sure how to respond. I mean, the first time it was said was by someone in a park when my son was running and laughing. He was four and non-verbal.  So . . . not sure how non-verbal equaled high-functioning. Not sure how a complete stranger could make an assessment like that after observing my son for one minute.  Perhaps, since it was 1998, the person didn’t really know much about autism and thought it was a predominantly physical disability. Perhaps if someone had turned on a leaf blower and my son had started screaming, the person would not have said that. Perhaps if she had asked him his name and not received an answer from him, she might have thought differently about his functioning level. Not sure. I really didn’t have time to get into it with her. A second later, Nigel darted for the street, and I ran after him. High-functioning.

High-functioning can be misleading. Now, people see him as a high-functioning verbal teen. And that’s what he is. But what they don’t see are the years and years behind that high-functioning teen. The years of language acquisition through echolalia, over a decade of speech therapy, and daily life. The years of learning to filter sensory issues so that he can function semi-comfortably in various environments, even those as basic as classrooms, restaurants, grocery stores, and public restrooms. The years of learning appropriate and inappropriate behavior, with which he still struggles.

When people see a high-functioning verbal teen, they don’t see the daily medications he must take to manage his behavior and his anxiety. They don’t see the daily doses of risperidone and sertraline. They don’t see the subdued quality in his eyes that his mother has had to get used to seeing, because she knows it helps her son to achieve his goal of being mainstreamed in his local public school. Without the medication, he would not be able to manage his behavior. That is one way that high-functioning autism affects him. Being able to communicate is huge, but it is not the only issue.

When people see a high-functioning verbal teen, they don’t see how he’s been bullied and harassed and taken advantage of. They don’t see his trusting nature, they don’t see his lower emotional age, they don’t see his vulnerability. They don’t see how because he has to spend his days working so hard  – to filter the sensory issues of daily life, focus on trying to be appropriately social, and try to concentrate on school work – that he is exhausted. That sometimes it’s all too much for him, being autistic in this world.

Yet he continues to try, he continues to want to. He has a certain joie de vivre that I envy. Because of his autism, he doesn’t understand certain social obligations that will affect him very soon, as he enters adulthood. He wants to be an inventor when he grows up – an inventor of time machines. And while the finished product would most likely be quite lucrative, he doesn’t understand that he needs to have some type of income while he’s inventing his time machine, so that he can buy food for himself and pay for his shelter. When I try to explain this to him, he suggests that we should all live like our early human ancestors, in a very primordial sense. He says this with conviction, the same conviction with which he discusses his time machine. I don’t see that going over well in a job interview. High-functioning.

There are still so many things that others don’t see. Because they see a high-functioning teen, their expectations are higher, and while we should never sell our ASD kids short in what they can accomplish, we as parents know where the difficulties lie. We know how their delays in emotional and social development still affect them. We worry about how they will interact with people who don’t know them when we’re not with them to facilitate. We know that there are things about living in our society that they cannot understand, such as having a job and paying the bills. Yes, my son is now high-functioning, but he has fought tooth and nail (literally, sometimes) to get there. If there was any luck involved, it was because every time he’s wandered away or bolted into the street or lit something on fire, he’s never been harmed. So yes, to everyone who’s ever said that I’m lucky, I am.  High-functioning or not.

The High Functioning Threshold

I recently came across this survey taken by one of my favorite sites for autism information, Natural Learning Concepts.

Over 5,000 people have been asked this question.  The results of the poll are:



1. Live independently 8 Percent
2. Live independently but require minimal support 42 Percent
3. Live in a group home 14 Percent
4. My child will probably never leave home 36 Percent


These results intrigue me, and make me wonder two things. First of all, how old are the children of the parents surveyed? I know that my answer would vary depending on the age Nigel had been at the time I was asked. Between the ages of three and seven, I would have chosen #4, My child will probably never leave home. Between the ages of eight and thirteen, I would have chosen #3, Live in a group home. But now, as he nears fourteen, I might possibly choose #2, Live independently but require minimal support. Or, it might be #4 until his late twenties-mid thirties, and then #2.  And then, as I look back at how far he’s come and dare to dream about how far he might be able to go, I wonder if the possibility exists that in a few years I could actually answer #1, Live independently. As the years have gone by, his functioning has gone from fairly low to moderate to fairly high. What if he continues to improve? What is his true potential?

And this brings me to my second question: At what point do we say that someone is high functioning? The definition is rather subjective. I have acquaintances who’ve said to me, “How wonderful that Nigel’s so high functioning!” But I think, if he were so high functioning, wouldn’t he be able to be mainstreamed? Wouldn’t he be able to make it through a typical school day? At this point, he talks HFA (high functioning autistic). His sensory issues, so severe in the past, are now at a manageable level. So how do we quantify our child’s level of functioning? Where is the high functioning threshold anyway? At what point do we know that our children have crossed it? And what does that mean for them and their future? Trying to make their way in this world that could easily take advantage of them? What does it mean for us, their parents?

Of course, if Nigel were still non-verbal or still had severe sensory issues, I would not be asking these questions. I would choose answer #3 or #4, as I would have when he was younger. I would still think about his future, of course, and mine. I would obsess about finding a good facility for him. I know that it would not be easier, because I had been in those shoes for several years. But it would be different. My concerns about my son’s future are different now than they were before he began reaching for the high functioning threshold, but no less worrisome, no less consuming.

And so, regardless of our children’s age, regardless of their functioning level, we all face the question posed by Natural Learning Concepts regarding our children’s future. We all wonder and worry. Some parents’ worries evolve and change, and some are unique to their own circumstances. But we all face the prospect of how autism will affect our children’s futures. We all have our own suitcases to carry. And whether we cross that threshold or whether we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum or somewhere in between, we still face this challenge. And that is no small feat.