One of the ways that we attempt to deal with this difference is by using functioning labels, as in that person is high-functioning or low-functioning. Some people object to this use of labels but in general, it helps to give you an idea of what type of autism we are talking about. I find it helps to remember that a person is not limited to being the label but rather is capable of functioning better (or worse) depending on the exact situation that we are talking about.
The important thing is that people who are high-functioning are very different from ones who are low-functioning and need very different things.
It is my opinion that there are more children at the lower functioning side than the higher functioning side, and data from the CDC seems to bear this out. According to the CDC, approximately 41% of children with autism have an IQ less than 70 which means that 41% of children with autism have an intellectual disability in addition to autism. Also according to the CDC, about 40% of children with autism do not talk at all. There are other statistics available from a variety of sources, but as they are equally depressing, I am not going to point them out. In general, children with an intellectual disability or who can't talk would be considered lower-functioning.
On the flip side you have adults with autism who are just slightly socially quirky and like to claim that autism gives them special intellectual gifts. They also like to diagnosis important historical figures with autism and pretend it was their autism that made them important. Or they like to serve on governmental committees and pontificate about what people with autism need.
To give a more concrete example, below is the difference between low and high functioning.
From Astroturf, I mean "The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism" where "informed decisions are made with love", we have an adult talking about his Aspergers -
When I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 2003 at the age of 25, I had already pretty much given up hope of ever finding and getting a job that was right for me. All I had to show for my job skills was a high school diploma with a lousy grade average, and a few exams which I barely passed when I tried studying to become a school teacher and when I tried getting a bachelor degree in English at the university, neither of which I finished.You can read the rest at the link above. It is pretty standard stuff from someone who didn't find out until they had a form of autism until later in life and whose main issues are social.
On the other side, we have this piece from the Center for Autism & Related Disorders (CARD), that talks about attempting to teach children how to deal with an unknown question -
In a recent study, Ingvarsson and Hollobaugh effectively taught four children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to use the phrase “I don’t know, please tell me” in response to unknown questions. ...
Two of the participants quickly learned the verbal response and were able to generalize the response across various questions. The other two participants required implementation of individualized behavioral techniques in order to learn and generalize the response.You are reading it right, there are children with autism who don't know what to do when asked an unknown question and have to be taught (and those are the ones that can talk). Some researchers have figured out a way to teach children who would otherwise have no response to an unknown question what to do. If you are unfamiliar with ABA and how it is used to teach children with autism, let me just say that this is a little bit of a feat.
The thing that jumps out at me is the difference between these two scenarios. One one hand, we have someone who was able to function well enough to graduate high school and make an attempt at college but needed assistance finding and holding a job (which is, sadly, a common problem for a lot of high school graduates in this country). But on the other hand we have children who don't know how to respond to a simple question and need to be taught a canned response.
Both would have autism but both are extremely different from each other.
And yet, one of these groups feels the need to speak on the behalf of the other and say what they do and don't need. One of these groups feels they have the right to challenge what parents are attempting to do to help their children.
So the next time you read something about autism, just remember - we aren't all talking about the same autism. Your form of autism and what you need might be quite different than what my children need.