What? Aren’t Most Autistics High Functioning?


I recently read a review by David Kirby of Autism: The Musical published in the Huffington Post. You’ve likely never heard of him but Kirby is the author of a factually dubious book attempting to link the mercury that was once in vaccines to a perceived increase of Autism diagnoses. While Kirby is not a doctor, he claims to be an expert and has a habit of writing incredibly misleading articles about autism and frequently compromises any semblance of journalistic integrity he once had. Consequently he’s not the type of person I’d usually respond to. However, in his review of Autism: The Musical, Kirby is worried that people might be concerned that the movie’s depiction of “the two high functioning boys — so bright and charismatic… will leave the mistaken impression that most children with autism are like this.” He then made the exceptional claim that most individuals with autism are not “high functioning.”

The question I’d like to raise is, “really?”

No, not really. Based on studies conducted throughout the last two decades, it would appear that Mr. Kirby is completely wrong to say that most autistics are “low functioning.” The most recent studies which look into the official number of individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome paint a very different picture.

According to a study conducted in England during the 90s (Asperger’s was only recognized in 1981, a decade earlier), one in three hundred people had already been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. However, a study conducted in Sweden a little more recently found that the rate of Asperger’s Syndrome diagnoses has increased to 1 in 250. 1 Since the CDC says that 1 in 150 people have Autism, those with Asperger’s would make up considerably more than half of all autism diagnoses.

Already, it appears that more people have Asperger’s than any other autism diagnosis. But we haven’t even factored in the number of people with classic autism who would still be considered “high functioning.” I was unable to find any studies addressing the number of people with high functioning autism but it’s clear that there are quite a few people meeting that criteria on Wrong Planet alone, much less the entire world.

What’s interesting to note is that Asperger’s clearly makes up more than half of autism diagnosis alone. Considering this fact, why would anyone get the impression that high functioning autistics are in the minority?

The simple answer is that people such as Kirby and organizations such as Autism Speaks benefit from the public incorrectly believing in a picture of autism that is completely wrong. How do they benefit exactly? Think about how many people donate to autism organizations because they want to help the “poor autistic children.” Granted, Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t the easiest thing to be diagnosed with. But would as many people donate money if they knew that more than half of the 1 in 150 ‘sufferers’ are actually not suffering from anything other than social skill problems, sensory issues, and mainly being misunderstood by society?

By deceptively equating autism to the likes of cancer or polio, organizations such as Autism Speaks bring increased attention to the issue of Autism and raise more money than they would under normal circumstances. While awareness is generally good, these organizations are creating a negative stigma and a culture where parents’ violence against autistic children is viewed under a sympathetic light.

Why is this tolerated? I don’t know the answer to that question. It puzzles me just as much as autism puzzles those parents who didn’t get a kid who acted as normal as they thought he should. Unfortunately, those parents are getting all the attention right now while autistics themselves are not being listened to. Hopefully this will change in the future but all of us with autism need to increase our volume to make more noise before we can begin to be heard.

1 Bjorn Kadesjo, Christopher Gillberg, and Bibbi Hagberg. (1999) Jr. Autism and Developmental Disorders, 29, 327-331.

Author Alex Plank founded WrongPlanet.net while he was in High School. Since that time, the site has gained more than 17,500 members across the globe.

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