The Problem with High Functioning Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to discuss the term “high functioning autism”.

You may be surprised to hear that the term “high functioning” is quite controversial within the autistic community. In fact a recent study strongly supports discarding the term “high functioning autism” completely.

So why is the term controversial?

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Firstly, let’s quickly remind ourselves of what constitutes high functioning autism:

High functioning autism (HFA) is a term used to describe autists with strong language skills and an IQ of over 70 ( i.e they do not have an intellectual disability). 

Herein lies the problem- the term uses IQ as a predictor of functionality and does not take into account the day to day struggles of the average autist. An autist deemed to be low functioning may not encounter challenges in their daily life, but may struggle academically.  Similarly, an autist may excel academically, but something so trivial as writing an email may prove challenging. In many of the films I’ve reviewed, the autistic character is described as high functioning, but yet they are incapable of living an independent life.

Moreover, functioning levels often fluctuate from year to year, improving or dis-improving depending on circumstances and levels of support- there’s even evidence to suggest that, as with many things, autism can get worse with age! Levels can even fluctuate day to day where something as simple as lack of sleep can impact upon functioning. As a result of this, many autists deemed “high functioning” do not get adequate support for their needs.

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Researchers have found in a recent study that there is a serious gap between an autists cognitive functioning (IQ) and their adaptive behaviours (i.e. their ability to adapt to their environment). The average results show that autists with higher IQs scored 28 points lower than their IQ in adaptive behaviour scales, suggesting that IQ is a weak predictor of daily functioning.

You can read more about the study here:

Large study supports discarding the term ‘high-functioning autism’

Technically speaking, within the medical community the term “high functioning” is considered an informal term and is not in itself a definitive diagnosis, further fueling efforts to banish it.

However, I personally feel that removing the term could be problematic. In my case, both my IQ and functional abilities are high- I breezed through college, have an active social life, hold a job and live independently. To say that I am simply autistic to a person who doesn’t know me very well can skew their expectations and perceptions of me- especially in the workforce. Granted, public understanding of the spectrum is improving, but still the ‘a’ word can place you into a predefined box in people’s minds.

I worry that our move towards a more generalized view of the spectrum may effectively disable the truly high functioning. Recall how autism is divided into levels. Asperger’s syndrome has been swallowed up by level 1 autism, where autists have noticeable issues with socializing and communication skills. This level is characterized by:

  • decreased interest in social interactions or activities
  • capable of social engagement but may struggle with conversational give-and-take
  • difficulty with planning and organizing
  • struggles with initiating social interactions, such as talking to a person
  • obvious signs of communication difficulty
  • trouble adapting to changes in routine or behavior

where autists are vaguely classed as “requiring support”.

On paper, I fall under this definition, but it does not describe me as well as Asperger’s syndrome or the term ‘high functioning’. This definition paints an entirely different picture for people to that of my reality (for starters the only support I require consists mainly of a good bra, sugar, a hug and a box of tissues for unexpected meltdowns 😂). Were I to have been diagnosed earlier in life, this definition may well have held me back.

For many autists, indeed the term high functioning can be tricky, but I do not believe it should be abandoned completely. Yes, it is time to reevaluate our classification of autism to better define functionality levels across the entire spectrum, but perhaps there’s a better way to go about it.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism on Screen: Forrest Gump

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today we’re going to have a look at the portrayal of autism in the multi-award winning 1994 classic ‘Forrest Gump‘.

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I know, it’s not a film that specifically mentions autism, but it’s on a list of films featuring autism by the Autism Research Institute so we’ll have a look anyway! 🙂

In actual fact, ‘Forrest Gump‘ was based on a book of the same name by Winston Groom (1986) in which the title character is an autistic savant with great mathematical ability! I’ll have a read of this at some stage and discuss it in the future 🙂

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So what’s ‘Forrest Gump‘ about?

In short, the film details the life and adventures of one Forrest Gump native of Greenbow, Alabama. Slow witted, but kind hearted, Forrest find’s himself in the midst of some of the most pivotal events in modern American history, showing everyone that mental disability does not preclude you from living a most extraordinary life.

For anyone who has yet to see the film- here’s a little trailer:

So how does ‘Forrest Gump‘ fare in it’s portrayal of autism?

Whilst ‘Forrest Gump‘ may not intentionally portray autism as in the book, nevertheless Forrest displays many autistic characteristics consistent with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. He does not always display socially appropriate behavior, as demonstrated by the memorable scene in the White House where he tells JFK that he has to pee! Forrest doesn’t always make eye contact, has some specialist interests (such as Jenny and Ping Pong) and can often ramble on, speaking in monotones as is often associated with AS. Forrest also demonstrates that he is a literal thinker in the film, often leading to some of the more humorous moments.

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Interestingly, the film depicts Forrest in a more realistic light than in the book. Whilst he is described in both as having a low IQ in the 70’s, Forest is not portrayed as a stereotyped mathematical savant in the film.

FINALLY! A bit of realism! 😛 😉

Although entirely fictional, this film delivers the audience an encouraging message of hope. In spite of his mental limitations, Forrest goes on to lead not just a “normal”, but an extraordinary life.

Forrest’s tale truly shows us how, as I’ve often remarked in this blog, you should never allow autism to hold you back. An autism diagnosis can be a challenge yes, but it does not mean that you can’t live a “normal”, happy and fulfilling life 🙂

To quote Sally Field in this film:

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

 

Autism on Screen- Adam

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today we’ll be taking a look at the representation of Asperger’s syndrome in the 2009 (although filmed in 2005) romantic drama film ‘Adam‘ starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne.

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Adam‘ focuses on the relationship between Adam, a man with AS, and Beth, his neurotypical next door neighbour, as they embark on a romantic relationship. The film charts their relationship from unorthodox origins (Adam unwittingly asks Beth if she is aroused one night when struggling to read her emotions) to (**SPOILER ALERT**) strained ending, as both parties endeavor to better understand the other.

Check out the trailer below:

So how does ‘Adam‘ rank in it’s depiction of autism?

Scientifically speaking, ‘Adam‘ presents the audience with many of the classic characteristics of AS, providing insight into the emotional, sensory and social issues which many of us deal with on a daily basis, such as Adam’s struggles with job interviews.

One of the finer details in the film that stood out for me was how Adam separates different foods on his plate so that nothing is touching. This can be seen in the screenshot below:

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I remember reading ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time‘ by Mark Haddon as a teenager and identifying with how Christopher does not like his foods to be touching as ‘Adam‘ demonstrates here.

For me, certain foods that touch contaminate flavours and textures so I often endeavor to separate them on my plate. It’s a logical thing- I’m not crazy, I swear!!! 😛 😉

Ironically, I never put two and two together about having AS myself! 😛

The film is flawed however, in that the character of Adam is a highly intelligent electronic engineer with a photographic memory, further perpetuating the rare savant stereotype…

Dear film makers/screenwriters-enough with the savant skills already! It’s been done to death! 😛

In addition to this, there is one slightly insulting moment in the film wherein Adam is not considered “dating material” in Beth’s social circle. Granted, Beth largely ignores the advice of friends and family to pursue a relationship with Adam, buuuut (* *SPOILER ALERT**) ultimately agrees that they are from two different worlds and cannot make the relationship work.

Indeed, relationships can be hard for us, but that does not mean that we are incapable of making them work (I know several neurodiverse-neurotypical romantic pairings). One of the biggest problems in the relationship between Adam and Beth is that Adam is unable to tell Beth that he loves her. Believing that Adam sees their relationship practically and not emotionally, Beth makes the decision to break up with him as a result.

As previously discussed (Discussion: Love and Romance), saying ‘I love you’ can be quite difficult for an autist, but that does not mean that love isn’t there. I may struggle to say the words to the ones I love, but love them I do.

In watching the film, it’s obvious that Adam loves Beth, he just has a different way of showing her- something that parents, friends and significant others alike should be aware of. We do love you, it’s just hard for us to show it sometimes 🙂

All in all, ‘Adam‘ is a quirky affair that balances both the positives and negatives of life on the spectrum to give a relatively (we’ll let the high IQ/memory slide this time) realistic insight into the autistic experience 🙂

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Aoife

Autism 101- Savantism & High IQ’s

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Following on from the previous post examining ‘Rain Man‘, today I’m going to dive into the area of high IQ’s and savantism relating to autism.

Now before we start, remember- in spite of what Hollywood has led us to believe, savantism is a RARE condition affecting between 0.5 and 10% of autists. This means that over 90% of the autistic community do not possess these skills.

So be sure to take ‘Rain Man‘ with a grain of salt.

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Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s explore this fascinating condition properly 🙂

So first off- what exactly is savantism?

Savant syndrome is an extraordinary phenomenon wherein a person with serious mental disabilities (such as autism) shows unusual or exceptional aptitude for a particular area, task or activity in spite of their mental challenges. Historically, these individuals were also referred to as ‘idiot savants’, a term that is sometimes still used today.

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While seemingly  insensitive, the phrase actually comes from the French term meaning unlearned (idiot) skill (savant).

Surprisingly, savant skills tend to exist within five different skill categories:

  • Music (perfect pitch, performance skills)
  • Art (drawing, painting etc.)
  • Mathematics (human calculator abilities)
  • Calendar calculating (i.e. can tell you the weekday a previous date fell on)
  • Mechanical/Spatial skills (model construction, mental measurement calculation)

Other skills have been recorded, but most generally fall within these categories.

Like autism, savant syndrome exists on a spectrum with varying degrees of savant ability. For example, there are:

  • Splinter skills- the most common form, involving memorization and obsession with facts, music, trivia, licence plate numbers etc.; kind of like specialist interests
  • Talented savants- who show highly honed talents and abilities predominantly in single areas of expertise 
  • Prodigious savants-those who possess extraordinary skills

Savant skills are additionally accompanied by exceptional memory. For example the ‘megasavant’ Kim Peek on whom ‘Rain Man‘ is based, memorized over 6000 books in his lifetime, all US area and Zip codes, several maps and possessed encyclopedic knowledge of music, geography, literature, history and sports to name but a few!!!

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Astonishing!!! 😀

So what’s going on in the brain to cause this?

Numerous theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, but as with autism, there is no one single theory to explain all cases. However, two theories in particular seem to dominate.

As savantism is found more often in cases of autism than in other mentally disabled groups, leading expert Simon Baron-Cohen proposed a theory concerning hyper-systemizing.

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I know- it sounds complicated! 😛

But basically the theory suggests that savantism results from an autists ability to recognize repeating patterns (systemizing) and excellent attention to detail. People with autism have a different style of thinking and memory filing and this predisposes them to savant skills 🙂

Further to this another theory, supported by several neurological studies of savants, indicates that dysfunction in the analytical left hemisphere of the brain (responsible for logic, language, reasoning, maths etc) causes the right hemisphere (creativity, imagination, art, music) to compensate, which can cause savant skills to emerge. It’s kind of like the right hemisphere is giving the left a piggyback.

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In addition to savantism, higher IQ’s are sometimes linked to autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

A number of studies have found that some of the genes linked to autism development are also associated with high intelligence. The link between autism and intelligence is not yet clear, however, people who carry these genes scored better than those without on intelligence tests.

These findings create an interesting paradox given that autism is generally characterized by lower IQ’s. Researchers have proposed the hypothesis that autism involves augmented, but imbalanced elements of intelligence to counter this paradox. This basically means that autists have higher levels of intelligence in some areas (e.g. academia, mathematics, art etc.) but not in others (e.g. social intelligence).

So there we have it, just a quick over view of savantism and IQ in autism! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

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