Recently a guest, after observing Yirmiyahu (2 3/4 yr) for a while, asked, “So, is he high functioning?”
Should I proudly say, ‘yes’, as if he’s better than someone who doesn’t get this lucky label?
People are not machines or vegetables that are sorted according to quality and priced accordingly. Inanimate objects can be rated with cold, measurable terms like ‘high functioning’ for the retail market but this is totally inappropriate for human beings.
I understand why people ask and it’s intended as a compliment. They see Yirmiyahu doing well and use this term as confirmation of his abilities. But Yirmiyahu is not high functioning. He is not low functioning.
He’s a living, breathing person with his own unique strengths and abilities, as well as his own challenges. Like every one of us.
Did you ever stop to think what in the world does it mean to be ‘high functioning’? Who gets to determine what the standards are, to check off the abilities of a fellow human being on a paper grid?
Is childhood a competition between the haves and have-nots, between those who can and those who can’t? Are we so arrogant as to think that because we or our children are blessed with certain abilities that it makes us better than those who have different abilities?
Defining success in life is individual. Different people want different things and will need different strengths in order to have lives that are meaningful to them. We have each been created with the abilities we need to fulfill our unique purpose in life. We aren’t meant to be the same and we shouldn’t be rated as if we are.
The reality is that people with disabilities are being rated from the time they’re born. They’re constantly being graded on a scale of performance that may or (more likely) may not be relevant to their individual lives. That same scale will ignore any strengths that haven’t been determined by some official somewhere who doesn’t know the child or his life, and the child is then rated according to his functioning.
Fair? No. Accurate? No. Is someone better than someone else with a similar condition because he’s been labeled ‘high functioning’? No.
So why do we use these ridiculous terms?
Are you wondering about how Yirmiyahu is doing? He’s awesome. He’s smart and communicative and he’s living life on his own timeline. Sometimes that looks impressive and sometimes it looks like there’s a delay, but none of it means that he’s ‘functioning’ better or worse.
If you never thought about these terms until now, join the crowd! I’ve thought a lot over the years about the importance of giving a child space to develop at his own pace and this has informed my approach to homeschooling and parenting. But I didn’t question the usage of terms like ‘low functioning’ or ‘high functioning’ until I had a child with a different developmental curve; it was then that it became alarmingly clear to me that we limit and damage our children when we label them in this way.