A couple years ago, my son had a school holiday pageant. The kind of event I would loved to have leaned on my then boyfriend to help me through, but he was out of town on business. So, with younger child in tow, I went to see my eldest son perform. My child is a staunch atheist, and he usually skipped the winter gala in protest of what he felt was an egregious blurring of the separation of church and state, since a local mega church hosts the public school performance. This particular year, he had made peace with performing in a church, so my reprieve was over. I walked in, my autistic son anxious to be on time, as if I would be late. He found his place, and I was left to find a seat in the echo chamber cathedral. Inadvertently, I found myself sitting in the middle of all the parents of my son’s best school friends. The boy astutely saw this, and came over to make introductions. Then, an old friend saw me, waved, and promptly seated her family next to my son and me. Our younger sons are friends, so the small boy chatter began in ernest. I wanted to curl up in a fetal position and put my hands over my ears. It took all I had to not run out. I interrupted my boyfriend’s business dinner with a flurry of frantic texts, and he talked me off my invisible ledge.
That was the night I realized my son was higher functioning than me. I’m ashamed to admit that my response to this epiphany was all too human. I was embarrassed. After all, I’m the parent here, right? You know that awkward moment when someone insensitively says they would never know your kid has autism and they think that’s some kind of compliment? I don’t. No one has ever said that about my son. He is blatantly, unabashedly autistic, and that’s how I’ve raised him. The first time he came home and told me someone called him weird I asked him if anyone said he was mean, questioned his intelligence, or made him feel bad about himself. He said no, just weird. Well then, dear son, let your freak flag fly. The world needs a good deal more weird. We woo hoo’d and hollered and celebrated our weirdness until my other son asked us to hold it down so he could get some sleep. By morning, I was over my moment of vanity in which I needed to somehow feel superior to my own child. I was duly full of self chastisement, and no one knew of my momentary ego trip until now.
So what is “high functioning”? I think of it much like Potter Stewart described pornography:
I shall not today attempt further to define…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…
—Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.
We know it when we see it, but the concept is a bear trap. I suspect some people will be upset with me for even acknowledging that the concept of high and low functioning has any validity. Others may take issue when I say that while I know it exists, I think it’s chiefly a yardstick of how comfortably one can navigate in a neurotypical setting. My son can easily initiate conversations, never loses speech, and has fewer sensory issues than me. I have all these issues, but for me, they are masked by stereotypes of female behavior. My scripting and inability to initiate or steer a conversation appears to most to be the behavior of a lady who is shy and deferential. When speech eludes me, I may appear cold or snobbish. When words blurt out sharply, I’m assumed to be ‘bitchy’. These perceptions are all deeply rooted in sexism, but I feel no shame in exploiting them to my own purposes. This is how I function.