After Thanksgiving dinner, I had diarrhea.
This example may give some readers pause as they flash signs of contempt or disgust. However, most people share a personal understanding of brief diarrhea. Exact causes may be difficult to pinpoint, but usually involve complex chemistry of fluid imbalance. Other factors, like stress, may warrant consideration, too. Still, most people can empathize and sympathize with this gastrointestinal challenge. In polite company, we refrain from sharing our toileting experiences. This is an unwritten social rule. I contend how diarrhea may only momentarily detract from our daily routines or work performances, though. As filthy as diarrhea might be, we understand it well enough from our own experiences, and still dislike addressing it. I wonder how proud actors feel whilst filming commercials for an over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medication.
Unconsciously, we might assign those negative images of watery feces to the person having diarrhea. We give the ill person distance, to avoid contracting diarrhea ourselves. We encourage bed rest, medication, and other things which completely remove them from future conversations until WE think they act or feel …
…wait for it…
“normal.” Despite our intimate knowledge of diarrhea, we automatically shun anyone who currently experiences it. We devalue their contributions because we assume their illness also affects mental alertness or other skills we otherwise expect. We seek to avoid contamination ourselves, and scrub our hands with anti-bacterial soap. Flush our relationship until the illness passes. We may want our friends to rest, or we may want nothing to do with a stranger who ate gas-station sushi.
Why are we so dismissive and lack compassion for an experience we likely have all shared and at least conceptually understand? Couldn’t a person with diarrhea still draw, still code, still do a lot of non-physically challenging things of value? I believe this person can add value. However, society caps their presumed potential until their diarrhea passes and they “act” less of an uncomfortable threat to our societal expectations.
1 in 68 persons has autism, and I believe more than this ratio have had diarrhea. Not as many people understand autism as well as diarrhea. Making understanding more difficult, we ascribe words like “low functioning” as a description. No, we may not come out and say “low functioning.” Instead, we use words like “high functioning autism,” which immediately supposes its counter-point: low-functioning autism. Likewise, we avoid invoking the word, “diarrhea” because we know peer judgement follows. Instead, words like “upset stomach” or “wiped out” seem more polite. What is a nicer way of saying “low functioning autism?” Yeah, there aren’t any, and you’re foolish to think aggressors won’t prey upon this distinction. Even worse, I contend some people with “higher functioning autism” also know how to throw bully-wolves off their scent by making such comparisons.
“I don’t have diarrhea; I’ve a tummy ache.” “I might have autism, but it’s ‘HIGH functioning autism.'” Both sentences desperately seek acceptance, and use language to seem more approachable. I believe most people know what diarrhea looks like, but doubt many of these same people could identify two clinical needs which warrant a lower functional categorization. Instead, society fumbles with perceptions over what “low” functioning might be, even if their examples seem disconnected to autism. This becomes a dangerous enterprise, adding more doubt, myths, and missed opportunities for our community as a whole.
Instead, leave the adjectives “high functioning” and “low functioning” autism to the clinicians who crafted the words for their own medical processes. Stop manufacturing more reasons for polite society to fear or further distance themselves from an impolite conversation. As a collection of human beings, we cannot have easy discussions about loose stool, so why do we think invoking high/low functionalities will improve understandings of autism without similar contempt, disgust, or fear of known diarrhea?
Please add to this conversation if you have a counter-point. I boldly contend that we should erase the use of autism functionalities outside of our clinicians’ offices. Someone saying they’ve “high functioning” autism is really saying, “Yes, I’m autistic, BUT please don’t confuse me for someone with low-functioning autism, because I know you won’t give me any chances otherwise.” I dare anyone who identifies as having “high-functioning” autism to say it WITH a person who has “low functioning” autism also present, and then point to that person and call ’em “low functioning” to their face. OWN that glorified trap, if you must insist on its non-clinical use. Outside of educational/medical care, can you name any situation where identifying an autism functionality is helpful to the individual, the recipient of that information, or “polite” society (the same group who cannot stomach talks of diarrhea) as we seek greater acceptance? Nah, we won’t have acceptance from neurotypical folk until we can accept ourselves.