6 mins read

A Community Autism Experience

I was at the gym the other day. I was about to get into the swimming pool when a lifeguard approached me and said, “There’s a young man who is going to share your lane with you. He has high functioning autism, but he knows how to share a pool lane.”

What happened?

Well, nothing really. I swam on my side and he swam on his side.

I have some thoughts, however, on this pretty minor encounter with a young man on the spectrum.

Was this a typical interaction?

Yes. The pools often get full to the point where a swimmer has to swim with other swimmers, sometimes even three or four. With two, the swimmers just divide the lane. With three or four, swimmers swim in a counter-clockwise circle. It’s perfectly fine for faster swimmers to pass slow ones.

This young man was a slow swimmer, but he never once bothered me. He stayed on his side of our shared lane. No problems.

Why did the lifeguard have to approach me?

Well, the young man had an aide with him. I can only assume that the aide instructed the lifeguard(s) to talk to anyone who her client had to swim with. I guess if he had had a lane to himself, that situation also would have been fine. (The pool was crowded, though.)

I hopped into the pool but had to wait for the young man to reach my end of the pool. I figured he had to verbally be told to share, or maybe he had to finish the one lap in the middle before moving over.

I began my swim.

And, I also began to think about stuff.


The young man was older than my son (who is fourteen) since he sported a full (yet cropped) beard.

He had an aide.

So, I began to ponder the word, “high functioning.”

I had told the lifeguard that swimming with someone with autism was no problem for me since I have a son with autism.

So, while I was swimming, I thought about how my son’s diagnosis is “high functioning,” and how I believed that this man’s autism was probably not “high” functioning.

I am not qualified on any way to confirm a diagnosis, however, this young man didn’t respond to me, or even look at me, when I thanked him at the end for sharing the lane with me and wishing him to have a good day. He was self-talking, so perhaps that was his way of responding. Or, perhaps he doesn’t like to connect with people while he’s swimming.

All possible.

Yet, when comparing my son’s high functioning to this man’s high functioning, they just seem so different. (Yes, all individuals on the spectrum are different, yet I’m just pondering the adjective.)

My son communicates well. He’ll give a person some eye contact, yet it’s not always there. He’ll answer a question posed to him, and he’ll ask a stranger a question.

He seems to have more ability to engage.

And, he doesn’t have an aide.

I thought about that, too.

What about the aide?

This high functioning man had a female aide. First, I questioned the wisdom of assigning a female to a young man who wants to go to the gym (and presumably use the men’s locker room, the young man was swimming after all).

And, since I was guessing he wasn’t really all that high functioning, and he has an aide, then why tell the gym that he’s an individual with high functioning autism.

Why does that matter, I guess is what I’m asking.

Even if the two individuals had two different types of high “functionability,” I pondered the need to be told that this individual has this “type.”

What about the aide?

Getting back to the aide, one guess is that perhaps the young man doesn’t drive, and this aide is able to get him from place to place.

I also believe there may be more female aides out there than male aides (just a guess). Still, I thought if the young man had an issue in the men’s locker what was the aide to do? She can’t help the man. I suppose she could ask a male member of the gym staff to assist?

Additionally, I was a bit discouraged to see the aide go and use her phone when the young man was swimming. What if he needed something from her? She was off (apparently) doing her own thing on her cell phone.

What about all of this?

Well, I suppose this was just an experience I had and it began to make me things of some things.

I experienced an interaction with another human being that was perfectly fine. Nothing bad happened. That part was just another normal experience for me (and hopefully him).

The experience did make me ponder if the individual in question (or the person(s) “in charge” of that individual) is going out in the world and accurately representing themselves.

Is this person high functioning? What is high functioning? If two individuals are calling themselves high functioning, yet clearly have some differences, does it matter?

What is the middle term, between a low functioning individual and a high functioning one?

And, again, does it really matter to even need those adjectives?

Was this just A Community Autism Experience? And, did I enjoy the experience?

Yes, I did.


More on Kimberly Kaplan:

To purchase “Two Years Autism Blogs Featured on ModernMom.com”

or “A Parentsʼ Guide to Early Autism Intervention” visit Amazon (print or digital) or Smashwords

Twitter: tipsautismmom

LinkedIn: Kimberly Kaplan