Autism: Functional disability:

Updated: Jul 26

It is not straightforward


Despite differences in approaches to define ‘intelligence’, most experts agree that intelligence is the capacity to learn, think logically about abstract concepts and the ability to adapt to the cultural environment.


Functional and intellectual disability


Donna Williams (1996) distinguishes between functional and intellectual disability. The first one is to do with how a person functions in the world based on the capacity to act on the information in the context it happens. The second is about the capacity to accumulate knowledge. A person can have no or little intellectual problems because of his/her unimpaired capacity to accumulate information and still have difficulties to access or act on this knowledge caused by information-processing problems.


Research studies examining the gap between intelligence and adaptive functioning (i.e., the age-appropriate skills necessary for independent living) in autistic individuals who do not have an intellectual disability, confirm Donna’s explanations. Research demonstrates that even though many autistic children, adolescents and adults without an intellectual disability have the intellectual capacity to excel in mainstream educational and vocational settings, they have adaptive functioning difficulties (relative to their intellectual ability) that may serve as an obstacle to independence (see, e.g., Matthews et al. 2021).


In my book Theory of Mind and the Triad of Perspectives on Autism and AS I wondered whether a disability is a cultural phenomenon and whether so-called low-functioning autistic individuals can live independently. These questions were triggered by stories of ‘historical diagnosis’, such as, for example, the case study (based on clinical and non-clinical descriptions) of


Victor, ‘the wild boy of Aveyron’.


Thanks to the detailed accounts of Jean Marc Gaspar Itard, we learn the fascinating history of a boy who was found in a forest in France. The boy was first seen in 1797 in the woods near Lacaune. The villagers caught him twice in 1797 and 1798, but the boy managed to escape. He was captured again in early 1800, and this time was held.


The boy (thought to be 12 years old) was examined and labelled as ‘idiot’/ ‘imbecile’. Itard, a young physician at the time, took on the challenge of studying Victor’s condition and rehabilitating him. Based on Itard’s reports on the boy’s descriptions and reactions to intervention and other papers written about him, it has been suggested that Victor might have had autism (Frith 2003; Lane 1977). As Victor never acquired speech (just a few words to ask for food), and maintained his autistic behaviour that could not be much improved despite systematic education, he would have been described today as ‘’low-functioning’. The question is, how could a ‘low-functioning’ autistic boy survive alone for at least two years in the wild and could not live independently in a society, among people? Did social rules, conventions, lack of language disable him? Just a thought.


Recently, I’ve found a possible (and very interesting) explanation of Victor’s story. It comes from Donna Williams’ book

The Jumbled Jigsaw.


Donna writes about Zen (a form of Buddhism) in which it is realised that attachments are futile because all we become attached to is impermanent. The goal of Zen, (as Donna understands it) “is to let go all attachments, to body, to mind, to emotions, to belongings and materialism, to our place within hierarchy, to others.” Some (who don’t follow Zen Buddhism) may find it bizarre, pointless, a ‘giving up of life’, but to those who achieve “this state, it is not experience of giving up on life but of being born to a true experience of life without the illusion of attachment. Far from being seen as a defeat or a loss, their achievement of such a Zen state of non-achievement is seen as a place of stillness, peace and clarity.”


“Those for whom such a Zen state comes so naturally would be distressed and confused by society which seeks to have them embrace a very non-Zen reality. This non-Zen reality would be one in which they fully develop the intense and obvious attachments so desired by eager parents and professionals seeking to demonstrate their child’s advancement toward a state of ‘higher functioning’.”

Over the years, Donna heard from many people who had been fascinated by the way some ‘severely affected’ autistic individuals who appeared to have achieved this state.


“If it is true that some [autistic individuals] would feel at peace living wildly, naturally, with only the most basic needs, finding entertainments in the simplest of transient experiences and discarding them in the next instant with the impermanence they really have, then have we any facility for such people truly to experience this peace? In western society, if not worldwide, have we not erased all possibility of such a haven for these people? …


Parents have a choice which reality they want to help their [autistic] children towards. But the fact is that in most modern societies, cave-man reality isn’t an option. Many [autistic people] wouldn’t be prepared to survive on those terms, and creating a Zen Buddhist style retreat for natural ‘Buddhas’ within our common urban jungles is generally out of the financial reach of most families and unlikely to be considered for government funding.”



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