There's a particular video that was sent to me, asking for my thoughts about it. It's about an 11-year-old nonverbal autistic girl that has learned how to type. You may have seen it, or if not this particular one, some story like it. Here it is if you haven't seen it:
The first thing I notice is also the most obvious. Carly Fleischmann is an intelligent young girl, who simply had no ability to express that intelligence for most of her life. This is a phenomenon that we're seeing a lot these days. Many so-called “low-functioning” autistics have found alternative ways to communicate with others, and in doing so, have revealed an intelligence that is often above the normal range.
This story, and others like it, are almost an embodiment of the phrase “not being able to speak is not the same as having nothing to say.” Every one of these people that comes to public attention has something to say. They all appear to want it to be known that they are complete human beings, with feelings, and want nothing more than to be able to live a happy life. I find it heartening to see that people are listening.
I think this phenomenon also calls into question the validity of describing these individuals as being intellectually disabled. Carly is able to express her thoughts clearly and articulately through typing. But I think I can extend this point even further than that. If you're reading this, it's likely that you know at least one autistic person, if not several. Ask yourself, have you ever met an autistic person that you could definitively say was less intelligent than the average person? Or were some simply unable to express themselves enough to be seen as intelligent people. I can't say that all completely nonverbal individuals are highly intelligent. Only that it makes no sense to assume that they're intellectually disabled.
Another observation was specifically mentioned by Carly's father. He realized when she started typing that when he used to talk about her as if she wasn't there, that she could understand every word. This should always be assumed. It always saddens me to hear people talking about their family members like this, right in front of them. No one likes to be talked about in their presence. Even if the person does not understand what is being said about them, it does no harm to treat them with this kind of human dignity.
This leads to one more point that I would like to say. It's something I see in other stories like this, as well as the differences between “low-functioning” and “high-functioning” individuals, though it's rarely talked about. I saw a distinct difference in how Carly was treated by her parents before and after she started typing. Look back at the video and see if you can see it. She was being held down and restrained while screaming and flapping before.
Before anyone jumps on me for blaming parents, I do understand the desire to protect her from harming herself. However, I'm not sure how much danger there is in that happening to begin with. When I've done things like that in the past, the best thing to do would have been to simply leave me alone and let me calm down on my own. Trying to hold me down and stop me from hurting myself would have only made things worse.
Back to the video, you might have noticed that after Carly began typing, her parents were forced to think of her as a teenage girl. When that happened, they started treating her like a teenage girl, and she started acting like a teenage girl. People do tend to be products of their environment.
I have some personal experience in this area as well. I used to work with someone who, for a solid month or two, treated me like I was low-functioning, and made no secret of the fact that she thought of me as Rainman. What happened was I started closing in on myself. Not just at work, but everywhere. I felt like I was becoming more low-functioning. I learned later that other people that had nothing to do with my job were noticing as well. This is at odds with every other stage in my life, when I've been treated as a functioning human being, and I've been able to live up to that.
The final point I would like to make here is that I feel that a person's level of functioning is much more fluid than is commonly believed. For this reason, I feel we have little need for two terms that I've used here: low-functioning and high-functioning. Just remember that when you see a profoundly autistic person, remember that there is a fully-fleshed out human being in that body, and treat them accordingly.