[I would like to proudly introduce Thomas Clement's first guest blog post on my site, author of The Autistic Buddha]
My name’s Tom. I’m labelled the “high-functioning” one in my family. I have verbal abilities that are considered above average. I can speak several foreign languages fluently with no trace of an English accent and attribute this quite prodigious talent of mine to my autistic mind and its unique ability to absorb large amounts of information. But does that make me “high-functioning”? I really don’t think so.
Existence for me is mediocre at best. I drift between menial jobs, live in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and feel isolated from society around me for the most part. A lack of support during my schooldays caused me to have a mental breakdown which resulted in me running away from home. In 2009, I suffered a mental breakdown as a result of untreated depression which landed me in a psychiatric hospital for 8 weeks. Since I was a child, I’ve been a persistent source of worry and heartache for my parents precisely because of the “high-functioning” label I was given and how such a labelglossed over the real underlying issues such as my social anxiety that needed addressing but were instead neglected by professionals.
My brother’s name’s Jack. He’s labelled the “low-functioning” one in our family. The label has some truth in it. He has limited verbal and intellectual abilities. He also isn’t able to perform rudimentary daily tasks without at least some assistance. However, he’s very different to me in terms of temperament and this difference is key. He’s generally always happy, cheery, at peace in his own world and he exudes a childlike innocence that everyone who knows him adores. He goes to a college that caters specifically for the needs of people who are autistic and epileptic where he can be among his neurosiblings. There he takes part in a range of activitiessuch as community gardening, horse-riding and even sculpting for which he receives a pay packet each week. Is he “low-functioning”? I don’t think so. He’s lucky to have his placement, true, but even despite such a placement I’m willing to bet he would be thriving in life, making connections with the world around him and finding a niche in some activity he liked doing.
In a sense, my intellectual talents have been a curse due to the sheer burden of expectation they have placed on me. They ought to have landed me a good job but haven’t and this sense of failed ambition has in turn caused me to suffer. Jack doesn’t suffer and he’s much happier, healthier and functions better than me. His face isn’t etched with the same neuroses or worry that mine are. He retains a youthful appearance whereas I look older than my age with dark rings around my eyes from poor sleep.
Basically, it’s time to drop these labels. They fail to convey the complexity of our various experiences living on the spectrum and are based on nothing more than glib assumptions of how we are meant to be.