Balancing Acts

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Apparently, there’s a bit of a Twitter storm going on at the moment around the hashtags #highfunctioningmeans and #functioninglabelsmean.  This has largely passed me by, because I’m not connected to the Autistic community on Twitter.  Twitter is for my public persona – you know, the one where I’m high functioning, and not in any way autistic.

But luckily for me, this subject has started to seep into the glorious anonymity of the blogosphere.  Both feministaspie and ischemgeek have excellent posts on it this week.  In reading ischemgeek’s satirical but oh-so-true account of what it means to be called high functioning, one phrase really hit home:

High functioning means you will always walk the tight rope between burnout and dehumanization. Don’t fall.

This is so accurate, and so painful, because I am really not good at walking tightropes.  In fact, I’m not good at balancing at all.  I can’t walk on walls without looking down at my feet; I can’t walk downstairs without holding a handrail; I couldn’t ride a bike without stabilisers until I was eleven.  I even have trouble walking on flat surfaces if the carpet or Lino happens to be patterned, for crying out loud.

And it’s not just literal balancing I have trouble with.  It has often been noted by people who aren’t me that I’m not very good at holding a balanced viewpoint, or seeing both sides of a debate.  (It has often been noted by me that it’s ridiculous to consider viewpoints which are plainly wrong when the debate or problem clearly has one logical solution – but that’s another story.)  I’m not very good at balancing my life either – I tend to swing between frenetic activity and complete inertia; and, as I’ve noted before, I’m pretty rubbish at doing things like managing my time or getting enough sleep.

But the thing about walking the tightrope between burnout and dehumanisation: absolutely.  I know exactly how that feels.  Where I grew up, there used to be a saying, “street angel, house devil,” for those kids who were paragons of virtue at school and in public, but created merry hell at home.  I sometimes feel that I live my whole life that way – being all empathic and sociable in public, then closing my street door and descending into meltdown with the strain of it all.

In some ways, parochial ministry is the ideal life for someone who’s autistic.  You work alone a lot of the time; you work from home a lot of the time; and you get to manage your own diary, which allows plenty of scope for decompression time.  It’s not like being a teacher or office worker or mechanic, where you’re expected to turn up and function at the same time each day or you’ll lose your job.  The number of occasions in the week when I absolutely have to be there and be on form are, thankfully, relatively few.  The downside is that those occasions are all really important – and I’m almost always centre stage.  If there’s a service, I’m probably leading it.  If there’s a committee meeting, I’m probably chairing it.  If there’s some kind of social event, it’s incumbent on me to mingle, and mingle well.  No matter how ‘low functioning’ (or non-functioning) I might be at the time, I simply have to turn up and perform.  You can’t really cancel a Sunday service, or call in sick to somebody’s funeral.

I guess that somebody who believes in functioning labels might say that this simply proves that I’m high functioning after all.  If I can be non-speaking at home, then suddenly snap into preaching a sermon, doesn’t that just prove that I can do it if I put my mind to it?  If I can’t bear the smell of any cleaning products or perfumes in my own house, but then sit for an hour in somebody else’s home being assaulted by their air freshener, doesn’t that show that it’s not really sensory overload, just fussiness?  If I can be right on the brink of meltdown and then suddenly suspend it while I answer the phone to the funeral director, surely that’s evidence that it’s not a real meltdown, and I could perfectly well control my behaviour if I wanted to.  After all, a “proper” Autistic, a “low functioning” Autistic couldn’t do any of those things.

Well, as it happens, I know some so-called “low functioning” autistic people, and it’s clear to me that they walk the tightrope just as I do.  I see them employing workarounds and self-management strategies all the time; I can only imagine what it costs them.  I certainly know what it costs me, because time on the tightrope doesn’t come cheap.

The older I get, the more “autistic” I seem to become.  Some of that, I think, is positive: I’m more attuned to the things that I can’t cope with; I’m less bothered about employing strategies like stimming and echolalia that help me get through the day; I’m more knowledgable about autism in general, so I’ve re-categorised quite a lot of my character, thinking and behaviour into the “I’m autistic” file rather than the “I’m a complete failure as a human being” file.  But I also know that the years of walking the tightrope are starting to take their toll.  I have more, and worse, meltdowns now than I ever did.  I’m less able to cope with sensory overload.  I’m starting to have problems with spoken language, and even periods of not being able to speak at all, which is supremely scary for someone who has always relied on verbal agility.  Worst of all, I am becoming less able to do the everyday stuff of life, like shopping and loading the dishwasher and getting dressed, and even getting up in the morning.  I’m lucky to have someone who helps me a bit with all that stuff, out of the kindness of their heart and without me paying them; but I can’t rely on that lasting forever.  Sooner or later, something is going to have to give.  Sooner or later, I will actually need proper support.

And therein lies the terrible catch-22 of being so-called high functioning.  As ischemgeek put it so well:

High functioning means you’re disabled enough to have real challenges, but not enough to get any help.

All those years of passing and achieving got me a bunch of qualifications, a job and a certain amount of status and respect; but what they prevented me from getting is a diagnosis,  any accommodations or support, any recognition that I might have difficulties which can’t just be resolved if I try a bit harder or pull myself together.  Above all, they’ve landed me in a place where I don’t feel that I can “come out,” where I’ve internalised society’s ableism so much that the only place I’m prepared to say all this is on an anonymous blog, all the while praying that nobody ever finds out who I am.

And so, despite the fact that I don’t like functioning labels, I’m pro-neurodiversity and I definitely don’t think Autism is anything to be ashamed of, I end up perpetuating the very stereotypes I detest.  What we really need, I reckon, is for everyone who is actually autistic to get off the tightrope, stand up and say: This is me.  I’m Autistic.  Here are all the awesome things I can do.  Here are all the things I struggle with.  Here are the reasonable accommodations I need.

Think how brilliant that would be.  I definitely think everyone should do it.

Somebody else go first.