This is an oldie that I’m bringing back again. In this blog post, I reflected on the three things I’m good at, and why people assume I’m “high-functioning” because I am good at those things. I scratch below the surface to point out that I am not all that “high-functioning” if we take into account the difficulties I have on a regular basis. This is why these labels of “high” or low” functioning are useless.
There have been changes over the year since I wrote this. I was promoted to principal, but this promotion comes with a heavy price: I can no longer find the time to do my extra job, and had to leave standardized test assessments. The raise was minimal, and we are struggling more financially than we were last year at this time. I was given this job because no one else would have taken it. It is up to me to do my best to right a potentially sinking ship around for very little pay. I am doing my best with that task, but still, I think about what I ought to have been able to do given my seeming “giftedness.”
Read on to hear more about the burdens of being supposedly “high-functioning.”
I know that some people will come here and say things about how I “must be high functioning” and I therefore don’t get the struggles of the “low-functioning.” Leaving aside the utter futility of the labels for a moment, let’s address first the idea that that is a very parent-centered thought. Parents seem to have this notion that their offspring must be able to do certain things or they’re failing as parents. This whole “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that we don’t have a disability people can see, and therefore, parents feel their worth as parents is ever in question, particularly when we struggle with something and the neighbors can’t see why. Neurodiversity advocates will remind you, at this point, that it isn’t about you. And it isn’t.
But I understand this feeling.
Just remember, all those “and sons” businesses where the sons were bad at running the business and it went under, or think of a prideful dad who doesn’t realize his daughter might have saved the business. How often do we do things that disappoint our parents in neurotypical society? And people just get over it or they don’t.
This is actually the same struggle ALL parents face!
Let’s get back to high vs. low functioning. The only people using those labels are people who are trying to divide the Autistic community and in that division, they divide the people who they believe are “pitiful” from those who are “functional” so that they can raise money for themselves (pitiful sells) and/or “mommywar” over how hard their lives are.
Neither of these things benefit the person being labeled, mind.
This is why we don’t like labels, period.
Cynthia Kim once write about how she could be described as both high-functioning and low-functioning, depending on the day. Same person, just highlighting different parts of her Disability. I thought I’d do the same in this post, where I lament the me that I could have been.
Claim to Fame #1: Early Reading
I started reading at the age of 2. This means a lot to people in education since early reading is always an EXCITING thing.
But…guess what the research actually says on that?
It doesn’t matter when you start to read; most people read, eventually, and whenever you start will mean absolutely nothing in the end. Check out any doctoral program or successful business and you’ll find a mix of early, middle, and late readers at the top.
A fair number of us Autistics read early and a fair number read late.
In the end, it doesn’t mean anything with us any more than it matters to anyone else.
Claim to Fame #2: Education
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I collect degrees. I have the B.A. (English/Theatre, Spanish minor), M.A. (Education), M.L.I.S. (Library), and J.D. (Law). I’m working on another M.A. (English, creative writing focused).
Here’s my actual educational path though: start early at the public university near my house (Theatre Appreciation, summer after high school graduation), then B.A. Elementary Education major, Secondary Education Major, fuck teaching, fuck my college, transfer back to public university (1 year); return to original college and self-design a Theatre Arts/English hybrid major. Graduate. Do short-term subbing. Get no feelers on jobs; get asked to interview as bilingual secretary, but it turns out it’s not that, he wants me to do a teaching job, get that job, go back to college for certification (same school), quit that job slightly less than a year later, do some long-term subbing (more desperate for certified teachers in the big city), do my student teaching, get a longer-term teaching job after I finish certification, keep going until the Master’s. Talk about desire to do Ph.D. Feel overwhelmed. Instead enter low-residency M.F.A. program. Do one semester. Have bad experience, quit.
Quit that teaching job, move to California. Last six months, come home. Work at ecumenical monastery for about 8 or 9 months, move into temping; do Sarbanes-Oxley work for about six months, go to law school. Start at one school, after first year, get married, pick up standardized test scoring job, after second year have baby, take a semester off and transfer to “safer” employability state/law school, have miscarriage, finish law school, stick with standardized testing job, send out ESL and Library degree applications, accepted to both, opt for library. Do library program online, move back home (closer to parents), get convinced to do Ph.D., get funded Ph.D., in second year, start teaching online again (middle school), seem to go around in circles, quit Ph.D., head back to first college (now called a university) to avoid student loan payments. Plan to focus on writing; briefly consider doing Ph.D. again (while doing M.A.), quit again when realize Autism is “in me.” Eventually give up on most everything and go back to teaching.
If you followed ANY of that, you’ll notice the only thing I’m good at is getting into and completing (most) degrees. My employment history is bizarre and is dictated by finding something that works for me while I’m taking degrees. The only world that makes sense to me is school and YET the Ph.D. was too hard to navigate, socially (intellectually, I was more than fine; in fact, I now edit papers for my former colleagues whose prose and argument are far worse than mine). Is this high functioning or low functioning?
Part of the reason I have all the degrees is that I bought, hook, line, and sinker, into the myth that education in and of itself means something because we are told it so often. It doesn’t, as it happens, and if you think that it does, they will also try to sell you swamp land as being a good place to build a house. We live in a society where education is used as a proxy for class (up to a certain point). It can get you from the lower class to the middle class, but only if you get an advanced degree. Once you’re in the middle class, a 4-year degree can keep you there. But that’s all it is. No one is ever getting further ahead than that.
I know this, and yet I collect degrees anyway. There is no financial advantage in this. If anything, I am at a severe disadvantage because I collect degrees. I have so much student loan debt (and rising) that I could buy two of my houses. It will never be paid off.
Claim to Fame #3: Teaching
I haven’t actually taught all that much under contract. Under contract, I have 3 years, full-time experience. 2.5 years at the beginning, half a year in California. If I add the alternative high school, it’s more like 3.75, and if I pick up the online school, which wasn’t quite full-time, it’s more like 5 years. I have been teaching and tutoring and rating standardized tests, though, since I was 17. All of this depends largely on how I spin it.
Teaching is a safety net career for me. Business never made sense to me, and though they loved me for my work (and my ability to get THEM out of work; business people hate doing extra work, so if you’ll do it for them, they love you), they didn’t quite “get” me. Teaching taught me how to pretend to be normal, but I have never nor will I ever fit in with the public school teaching crowd. That group is weird to me; they largely are anti-intellectuals and seem to do really well at fitting in socially, something I suck at. The Catholic school brigade can be like that, but if you look hard, you can usually find a bunch of intellectual-types who are just plain weird, but really love the pursuit of knowledge. My school has few intellectuals (I’m usually looked to for that), but their tolerance for “normal” is a lot wider than the public school would be, so I fit in, sort of. I teach, particularly at Catholic schools, since this is the only group that will have me, aside from my work-at-home standardized testing group (which also has a disproportionate number of Neurodiverse folk).
I teach because this is the only place that will have me. I am grateful.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the kids and I tend to “get” them. I’m the teacher they try to contact years later because I “meant something.” So I see a purpose in what I do. Someone has to be the teacher who runs with scissors, and I’m that teacher.
But I couldn’t really be anything else, even though I have all the coursework to be a principal, and the training of a superintendent besides. I am the person who has the answers, but someone else has to deliver them except with children, teens, and tweens, who accept me for who I am.
So, how “high functional” am I? Yes, I can hold down a job. I will note here that my full-time teaching job has no health insurance, and pays me less than $25,000/year. My standardized test pay, weekends only, doubles that salary if I can handle it (which I rarely can and it’s often stacked such that other than fall, weekend rating isn’t always an option). I have a slew of degrees that have brought me no financial advantage and have caused me to be forever in debt (well, once I graduate, for 20 years, I think is the cutoff now). I am successful at paying money I don’t have to institutions to “hang out at” and learn things I could teach myself. I buy friends and colleagues. I do a job because it’ll have me since I’m too weird for the higher-paying gigs to even consider.
Every day, though, I thank God that I’m Autistic. Autism gave me the creativity to figure out how to find all these side jobs and to “get by” at a relatively comfortable salary. Then again, if you think about it, I wouldn’t be buying things impulsively (credit card debt), constantly seeking new intellectual challenges (student loan debt), and would know how to make friends who aren’t university- or church/school- affiliated.
What I should have been able to do was stick at my first institution and move into a Ph.D. program in Reading, like I wanted to do from the beginning. But I couldn’t then and I can’t now. Had I pursued the Ph.D. younger, though, I would have not yet been “wise,” but “smart” and I could have probably wandered in and completed the bullshit that is required and I’d be comfortably on the tenure track by now. All the “smarts” I have would have landed me a good job, with some measure of security.
That’s what’s supposed to happen to us “gifted” folk, right?
But the reality is, for many Autistics, giftedness doesn’t pan out right because the social obligations are many, and the ability to understand them all simply not there. At the same time, so many of us are running around with no idea whatsoever that we are, in fact, Autistic or that ADHD is a real thing (thanks, culture!), so that we don’t know we’re wired differently than other people. By the time we figure this out, we’re exhausted from “passing” for neurotypical.
Sometimes, admittedly, we get lucky. Our stars line up in such a way that we can get the help we need to get through and get by. Arguably, Bill Gates is “one of us” and his parents helped out by making sure he had extra computer time when almost no one had access to computers at all. He built a successful business and we all know he has enough money to pay people to do those tasks we all struggle with (cleaning, shopping, etc.). But that’s an exception. Unless we get superrich, we’re not able to buy all the help we realistically need. It costs us money to buy that Roomba (we can ill afford) to help us with the cleaning task. It costs extra money to buy the GPS that will help us spare executive function loss to preserve it for other tasks. Disability is not cheap.
So, how “high functional” am I?
This is why labels are useless. In the end, we’re all trying to “pass” for neurotypical so we can make ends meet and fit in, the best we can. In the end, we all fail more often than we ought, and honestly, no one gives a damn if we do.
Because we’re weirdos. No one expected great things from us, anyway.