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What Does It Mean to Be Labeled a 'High-Functioning' Autistic Adult?

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I am a so-called “high-functioning” autistic person. I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (AS).

What exactly does it mean to be a “high-functioning” autistic person? I’m 28 years old, and to this day, I don’t know the answer to that question.

Does it mean to function better in your everyday life than your “traditionally autistic” peers?

Does it mean you are a genius who will change the world (Albert Einstein and Alan Turing are among the persons who supposedly had AS)?

Does it mean you can do more than most people with the same diagnosis as yourself?

When I’m at my lowest, my mom tells me I keep outperforming my peers all the time. When she’s not around, I tell this to myself. At first it was just a repetition of what I’d been told. By now, it’s become an instinct.

Deep down, however, I know that at worst it’s a lie. At best, it’s a half truth.

As many people with AS, their friends and their parents know, the capabilities and mental fortitudes of those diagnosed can differ wildly from person to person.

Myself, I think I’m moderately successful compared to my “highly functioning” peers. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism. At the moment I’m in the first year of another bachelor’s degree, this one in Russian language. Because of circumstances surrounding past internships, and less media jobs, getting a paid job as a journalist has proven to be next to impossible. However, I’ve had a couple of stints as a journalist for student magazines, and in the process I’ve met a lot of interesting persons. I’ve had experiences and conducted interviews I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

I’ve traveled to 22 countries in Europe. I’ve also been to the U.S., South America and Russia. I’ve written two novels, and I dream of finding a publisher willing to publish them.

However, compared to my non-autistic family, the people I grew up with and the people I surround myself with every day, I feel like a failure on almost every level.

I’ve never once held a paid job. I’ve only ever had one girlfriend. I do not have an extensive social circle, and while extremely grateful for the friends I have, I have to work twice as hard as everyone else to maintain them. I have bouts of extreme anxiety and depression, and it seems unlikely I’ll ever be able to get rid of them.

I’ve met people like me, mostly online, who are only too happy to label their condition as a gift. For me, my AS can feel like a burden when it does not give back what it has taken away from me. Intellectually, I know that given my circumstances, none of these can really be considered “failures.”

But unless I can manage to accept me for what I am, or perhaps more importantly, who I am – that is, a person with unique challenges, I know I’m bound to hit a wall in the near future.

Originally published: October 10, 2016
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