female with head down on desk

“High-Functioning”: Blessing or Curse?

You may have heard of “high-functioning alcoholics”—people who work steady jobs and seem immaculate in public, but become cranky and ill at home if they miss a regular dose of wine. If someone hints their drinking is “a bit much,” they retort that “anybody can see there’s nothing wrong.” Underneath, alcohol use disorder is silently consuming their lives—and if they continue to resist diagnosis and treatment, the disorder worsens until major problems become all too obvious.

Most people understand that surface “functionality” is no blessing when it comes to addiction, cancer, or other illnesses that can prove lethal if ignored. However, when someone has a “high-functioning” version of autism or another inborn disorder, it’s easy to assume the disorder itself is no big deal, and that the person should have no trouble acting like “everyone else.”

  • A twentysomething man with a cerebral-palsy-generated limp uses a scooter to get about. Strangers stare and ask, “Aren’t you awfully young for one of those?”
  • A student with mild autism wears noise-cancelling headphones to reduce distraction. A teacher orders her to remove them or “everyone will want to use headphones in class.” Pleas of special need are answered with a dismissive, “If you can talk normally, you can listen normally.”
  • A child has autistic stimming habits. Teachers, extended-family members, parents’ friends, and strangers routinely snap, “Settle down and stop being such a nuisance!”
  • And just about everyone with any non-obvious disability has heard this one: “You don’t look like you have arthritis/ADHD/chronic fatigue/low vision/schizophrenia/etc. You seem so … normal.” That’s no compliment to someone who is fatigued from the extra effort of compensating for a disorder, and longs for an encouraging word acknowledging their hard work.

When You Meet Someone with a “High-Functioning” Disability

  • The number-one rule is: never accuse someone of not having a disability. If you blink and blurt out, “No, seriously?!” the other party will hear, “You are lying. I know what autism/allergy/bipolar disorder looks like [without benefit of personal experience or previous acquaintance], and you don’t fit the mold.”
  • Even worse is to confront a stranger with, “Perhaps you didn’t notice this is a handicapped parking space?”—which happens surprisingly often in full view of a “handicapped” permit on the vehicle involved. A person doesn’t have to be in a wheelchair to qualify for accessible parking.
  • If someone is open to conversation about their disability, feel free to ask about it—but ask as an empathetic learner. Omit free advice and “I know just how you feel” comments (trust us, you don’t). Always follow the other party’s lead in conversation and in any offers of help.
  • Don’t assume you’re immune to disability bias if you (or a family member) have a disability yourself. “Your problem’s not that bad” attitudes exist in people with different types of disabilities, with different degrees of the same disability, and with near-identical disabilities but different racial/economic/gender demographics.

When Your Child Has a “High-Functioning” Disability

Parents can be more defensive about their children than anyone ever was on his or her own behalf. It’s tempting to leap in with claws bared when someone scolds your child or belittles her struggles—but be careful. Starting a fight improves no one’s understanding of disability, nor does it teach children how to deal with such situations independently. (If your child’s disability is “high-functioning,” they probably will be independent someday.)

Teach your children early on about their disabilities and how to explain a condition to others. Especially, don’t take it upon yourself to answer questions for them—and practice referring questions to the child when people inevitably ask you about the disability in his presence.

That said, don’t pressure your child to talk more than is comfortable, or to otherwise be like “typical” kids. Learning basic social skills is one thing; trying to change natural personality is entirely different. There’s no reason your children shouldn’t follow their personal inclinations on how much or little to socialize, as long as they excuse themselves politely when they’ve had enough.

When You Have a “High-Functioning” Disability

Perhaps you’ve spent years striving to “fit in”—and receiving little but frustration for your efforts—before finally being diagnosed as an adult. Don’t be bitter about having missed out on early childhood intervention and special education: there’s still time to reap the rewards of knowing and being your real self. Get therapy and join a peer support group to find the encouragement you need.

Whatever your specific age and disability, it’s important to do what’s right for you. If you need more rest, take it. If you can’t tolerate happy hours, find another networking venue. And don’t let anybody tell you you’re being selfish. A major reason for taking care of yourself is staying strong so you can do your best for others!

See our BridgingApps Executive Functioning and Organization List for apps that can give you a little help keeping life orderly. See also the following apps recommended by our Digital Learning Specialist, Tara Rocha:

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