Think Your Child is ‘Low Functioning’? Think Again

I’d like to confess something you know about quite well — I do not like the distinction between ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ autism.


If a child with autism can speak, read, write but has difficulties in socialization — then he’s labeled high functioning. If a child is mute or does not speak much, he is considered incapable of learning and hence low functioning.


Just because a person cannot speak, doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand and cannot learn. It just means we haven’t figured out a way to reach out to him and teach him.


I work with many children and adults who do not speak conventionally. I’ve interacted enough to know they get it, that they understand. I see the light in their eyes and the beauty of their souls.


Jasvinder recently shared about her eighteen-year-old son, Paawan.


One evening, they had a not so pleasant family discussion. Paawan was hanging out in the adjoining room. The next day, he seemed quiet and withdrawn. He stayed in his room and did not interact with the other family members, as he normally did.


It dawned upon Jasvinder that Paawan had absorbed that entire discussion and was upset about it.


When we spend time with people who don’t speak- we forget they understand everything.


Sharmistha has an interesting story about her son, Rishi. This occurred a few years ago.


For 2 months Rishi insisted on buying those soft, spiky, plastic balls and plastic pineapples. He would take them into his room and painstakingly cut off the spikes — every single day. And he would cut out a hole in every pineapple, in exactly the same place. Family members thought it was weird. They discouraged Sharmistha from buying those spiky balls and pineapples for Rishi. But she saw the joy it brought him and did not have the heart to stop.


At times she was tempted to throw out his ‘ugly’ collection. But something stopped her. One day, Rishi shared his installation with his family members! He had arranged these figures all around his table. This is just one section of the table.


activities by children with autism


It was a well thought out and planned creation, which he worked on painstakingly every day, for two whole months! Imagine his pain and disappointment if his creation had been thrown away. Sharmistha thanked her stars for following her gut!


Rishi does not use words to talk — but do we need that to prove his intelligence?


I spent years trying to teach Mohit to name colors. We didn’t go beyond red and yellow. I still remember the cardboard squares covered with red and yellow marble paper, tattered over years of use. I was heartbroken he didn’t know his colors.


But today he creates beautiful paintings in unimaginable shades of colors. Check out the color palettes he chooses. Nobody helps him with these. He hasn’t formally been taught to paint. His teacher, Sandeep Paradkar, guides him and gives him a free hand to explore and experiment.




How would you describe this intelligence? Does he know his colors or doesn’t he know his colors?


Here is what people with ‘low functioning autism’ would like to share with you.


“Sometimes being me means being misunderstood. People see me toe walking, jumping and running, screaming or being loud, watching little kid videos or playing repeat what I say with mommy, etc, and they see a boy being badly behaved or less than a normal boy. They don’t see me. The caring listener, loyal friend, joy filled non speaker, giving and intelligent human.”


Take time to absorb Jordyn’s words. Are we getting it all wrong?


We walk around with blinkers over our eyes. We’re conditioned to see only the ‘normal’ area of the bell curve of intelligence. What about the outliers?


A brilliant dad I work with, Sumit Saxena, came up with the word, ‘co-intelligence’. Are we intelligent enough to see and accept our children for who they are? Or are we fixated on the kind of intelligence measured by flawed IQ tests? Can we be ‘co intelligent’ enough to see through it and support our children?


Dear parent,


I’m certain you’ve spotted an innate intelligence in your child, an intelligence which made you sit up and think, ‘how did s/he do this?’


Think about that experience again. And this time, engrave it in your heart.


Don’t just pay lip service to your child’s intelligence. Prove it with your actions.


1. Believe in your child with all your heart


Trust his intelligence. When you see him hyper active or indulging in self-stimulatory behavior, know there’s the innate intelligence which lies beneath the surface. Do not get deceived just by what you see.


2. Speak respectfully


I’ll take it a step further. Speak respectfully about him in his presence and even when he’s not present.


Observe yourself. How do you introduce your child to others? What do you say about him? Are you apologetic about him? Are you embarrassed to introduce him? Or are you proud of him?


3. Teach respectfully


I learned this from one of my vocal students. I gave him a puzzle which said ‘6-8 years’ on the cover. He was 11 at that time. He pulled me up for it and asked, “Kamini aunty, why are you giving me a puzzle for 6 year olds?”


That question blew me away.


He asked because he could, because he had words. What about my students who couldn’t ask but were aware of everything? How was I treating them?


Senior Behavior Analyst, Dr Patrick McGreevy often talked about going to schools for adolescents and adults and asking them to throw all their shape sorters and baby puzzles away. That’s respect and dignity in action.


4. Involve them in your life


Do you take the effort of going out with your child? Do you involve him in your life and spend quality time with him? S/he wants to enjoy those trips and outings, just like everybody else.


Don’t take away opportunities to live and engage with others from your child.


5. Give them appropriate communication tools


If your child cannot talk, use other communication tools. Take a clue from how he learns, what he enjoys. Does he enjoy typing or writing? Does he enjoy the iPad? Work with a specialist to build this up.


Many years ago, I promised Mohit and my students I would always stand up for them. And I would speak for them till they started speaking for themselves.


”The theories regarding autism have been based on observation of our odd behaviors. Lists of these behaviors make a diagnosis.


“I have limited independence in self-care. I have limited eye contact. I have flat affect often. I can’t express my ideas verbally. I have poor fine motor control. I have impaired initiation. I have impaired gross motor control. I have difficulty controlling intense emotions. I have impulse control challenges and self stimulatory behavior.


“Whew. When I write that it sounds pretty bad, but I function adequately in this world. I am now 17 and I am a fulltime high school student in a general education program. I am in Honors Chemistry, Honors US History and Honors English. I am in Algebra 2, Spanish and Animal Sciences. I get straight As. I work out with a trainer 2 or 3 times a week to get fit. I study piano. I hike, cook, and help take care of a horse. I am invited to speak at universities and autism agencies. I am the author of Ido in Autismland, and a blogger as well. I have friends.” — Ido Kedar


These wonderful young men and women have already started speaking up for themselves. Today, I promise to work even harder for the beautiful people in my life to develop a voice of their own. I can hear it. It’s so loud that I can’t drown it out any


I rest my case.



  • Rucha Gujrathi says:

    Completely agree and can relate to it.
    What has worked for us is- respect your child’s ‘NO’….treat him as an ‘ADULT’, even if he’s only 3 years old.
    This builds trust, and then he’s willing for new ventures.


  • vasanthi Balaji says:

    Very true article I felt it reflected most of my views and the way I work with my angels . If these things starts reflecting every where then we can see the changes in many of us

  • Dr. Rajni says:

    It truly reflected my thoughts for all autistic kids/adolescents/adults. The parents need to have acceptance for their own child. I guess if everyone proudly introduces their child to the world as they are, without having any hitch. Half the difficulties are solved, bcoz its then we would stop comparing with a neurotypical world.

  • Glad you connected with this article, Dr Rajni.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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