Years ago I remember sitting around a fondue pot with my friend Dick and many others. Dick was at that time an octogenarian, and I was in my late twenties, and around the table were people of all ages in between. One person observed how wise it was that Dick had friends of all ages and it was mostly through church he developed these relationships. Dick had one rule: the word “old” and “young” were not allowed. Older and younger were unnecessary, as age is relative. This was a great lesson I have internalized. Dick also mixed bourbon and sweet vermouth in a gallon container so Manhattans were easily at hand, but alas I do not have the energy to handle a Manhattan nightly, so I keep my vermouth and bourbon in their respective bottles in my cabinet.
So in the autism world you have heard the dichotomy of functionality. Sometimes one is referred to as “High-functioning” and others as “low-functioning.” It may seem descriptive but it is an arbitrary dichotomy that really does not say anything about the individual. Using the illustration of age, one may call someone old based on their age, their fashion, their attitude, their appearance, or, based on the perception of the one saying the word, old. This is the same with functionality, and it says nothing about a person with autism.
I must confess, having a son that barely communicates verbally, is far behind academically and socially and is in diapers, I have desired to use the term “low-functioning” to make it clear what we are dealing with, but I remember my friend’s words about old and young, so I translated it to “lower-functioning” and “higher-functioning.” But upon reflection this does not translate in the same way as age, for when you use these terms even as a descriptive it is only for those with the developmental delay and not for all people. Thus even using “higher” or “lower” creates this artificial dichotomy just as much, and I was quite aware of it, but alas whenever talking to people about my son outside of the autism world (yes we have culture and it is just as nasty and nice as any other culture), I feel forced to use these overly simplified terms to help the person I was talking to understand as they felt comfortable.
I knew it was a problem but until I saw a friend’s Facebook post that read, “Every time you say ‘High Functioning Autism,; I die a little inside,” I realized I had been badgered by the ableist mindset to use their terms, and even with my tweaking to say it more relatively I had been perpetuating the false dichotomy that is part of anti-autism mindset of our culture. My friend makes it clear it is not a compliment nor a description that has any real meaning. The only possible meaning is that one with autism who is given the descriptive high or low is not a normal person who simply proves how they function through other means. The real dichotomy this functional classification is people who are autistic and those that are not, with an assumption those who are not are the most functional.
If we are going to say we welcome everyone in our churches (or anywhere) no matter their ability, let us not use language that assumes autism to be less a person. And like me, let us learn from those that understand this dichotomy do have the voice to teach us, and not assume we understand from our biases.