Why I’m not actually high-functioning

Mild Autism

Picture from girl.tribe on Instagram

I am so tired of people telling me I’m high-functioning. It’s not a useful label. It’s problematic; like the phrase “mild autism” in the above quote, it frames an autistic/Aspie person’s experience in terms of how hard it is for other people to cope with him or her, rather than how hard it is for the autistic/Aspie person to cope with a world set up for neurotypical people.

This is a story about what happened last Tuesday to remind me that my ability to cope isn’t a good indicator of how much Asperger’s I have.

So what happened was that Tuesday was the day I was working my ninth day in a row without a day off. I had developed an eye twitch from concentrating on the computer screen for too long (it still hasn’t fully gone away). There was a lecture on at uni and I hadn’t been to campus since getting back to Canberra in August. It was an interesting linguistics lecture about the role of lying in language and I really wanted a break from my work, so I went.

I left plenty of time (my husband’s constant coaching for me to leave more time than I think I need was paying off) so that parking, which I knew would be stressful because of the new app-paying system, wasn’t too big of a deal. I was feeling so on top of time-management that I thought I might even be able to take my books to the bookstore to see if they wanted to buy them before the lecture, rather than going afterwards.

I wandered into campus, got to North Road, and the bridge going to Union Court was BLOCKED due to construction. No way around but to walk all the way down and cross the creek. Destabilising. I spent ages trying to get to where the bookstore used to be before realising it was hopeless, the whole area was blocked off. I wandered, trying to follow the flow of students, to find the new hub. Eventually I found it, a “pop-up hub”. I asked a friendly-looking student where the bookstore was now. She pointed me in the right direction and then I realised it was getting close to lecture o’clock, and I was going to HC Coombs, which is a building designed by a sadist who hates Aspies, and I wasn’t sure where the room was. (HC Coombs is a building made of interlocking hexagons at split levels.)

Then I had to find HC Coombs from where I was. Finally I got to the front door, went inside, did the thing I always do in that building which is to look at the supposed building map. I don’t know why I bother because I might as well be looking at instructions written in Arabic. I started to walk up a stairwell but my spidey-sense went off and I knew it was the wrong way. Then I saw a sign pointing to the ARC linguistics block, so I followed it, and even though the sign went nowhere, my muscle memory kicked in and I found my way to the right area of the building, walked along the hall and found the right room. I was feeling very confident in my navigating of the difficult environment.

The lecture had only just started — a professor was giving an introduction to the guest speaker. I settled in and enjoyed the talk.

It was a great lecture, very intellectually stimulating and just what I needed after a bit of an academic drought in my life. The only problem was that the speaker made a reference to autism in which he referred to autistic people almost exclusively as children, and stated that autistic people don’t have imaginative capacity and that’s why they can’t lie. His one caveat was that ‘autistic children’, if they have imagination, have only visual imagination.

It was one of those comments that are sometimes called micro-aggressors. Not as bad as a punch in the face, but still upsetting and marginalising. I don’t have space here to explain what was wrong with what he said — maybe that’s a blog post for another day. But at some point I will read his book and email him and ask him if his linguistic training and research gives him authority to make incorrect and offensive statements in the area of developmental psychology.

I started to get tired so I left during question time (socially acceptable, a lot of people were doing it) and headed back to my car. I again had to navigate a campus that had been completely transformed by ongoing construction work. I found the bookstore but it had closed an hour earlier. I stopped for a slider (mini-burger) to regain some energy. I had to talk myself into sitting down to eat rather than racing off to my car, shoving food in my mouth.

Walking back to my car took a really long time and I started to get super tired from the exertion. Still, I was thinking, hey I’m coping well with this! There is construction and change which I normally hate, but I’m doing fine! Finally I got to my car and took off home.

Everything was fine and I was even getting heaps of green lights, when I came to an intersection only 500 metres from my house, to discover traffic was being redirected. I had to turn in a direction away from my house. I was still feeling confident, even though the nature of the redirection (car accident, rather than planned closure) meant there were no signs telling us where to go instead. I thought, this is my neighbourhood, I know how to get around. The sun was setting and blasting in my eyes. I navigated, I drove around, I took wrong turns, I headed towards my house. I’m so good at this, I thought. Look at me, coping with another unexpected change during my outing!

Finally I made it to my street, my complex, my carport. I pulled up. I was feeling a little bit stressed, to be honest. A week earlier The Pilot went and got our second car from where it was having a holiday in the country, and now we have to fit two big cars and a trailer in a carport made for two Berinas. I still haven’t got the knack of parking easily in these circumstances.

I thought about pulling up outside the carport and asking The Pilot to repark the car. But my stubbornness reared up. No, I can do it! So I pulled in, backed out, doing everything like The Pilot had instructed me, and CRUNCH. The bullbar rammed the carport pole. The Pilot came outside at the noise. I got out of the car. I was what you call a quivering mess. I tried to explain to him what had happened with the traffic redirect and the construction and the sun blasting my eyes and the pedestrian crossing I almost mowed through, risking the life of a pedestrian who was actually crossing on it at the time.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll repark the car, you go inside and then you can tell me all about it.”

I went inside, dropped my bags and dropped to the floor. The Pilot had to look after me and it took an hour or so before I regained equilibrium.

This is Asperger’s, I thought. No matter how good I am at coping with the things that mess with my brain, appearing to do well doesn’t mean I’m suddenly neurotypical, or that I have a mild form of Asperger’s or autism. This is who I am, and this is how I actually deal with an environment that doesn’t care about how my brain works.

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