30 Days of Autism: Autism and Functioning Labels

One of the most enduring false beliefs about autism is that autistic people are either “high functioning” or “low functioning”. In truth, there is no agreed upon diagnostic criteria for high or low functioning,  and the idea is fatally flawed.

Furthermore functioning is not static. As Courtney Barnum writes for The Mighty, ” I don’t consider myself high-functioning. I’m simply on the spectrum. Where I am on the spectrum depends on the day. My mood. The situation.”

Any autistic person will perform and function better when their physical needs (including sensory needs) are met, when they feel well, and when they feel safe. Likewise if an autistic person feels ill or unsafe or is itching from fabric seams they probably won’t perform or function as well.

So functioning labels are poorly defined and don’t take into account the fluid nature of functioning.  But the big problem with functioning labels is how allistic people treat autistic people based on these arbitrary labels.  From Musings of an Aspie:

If you’re high functioning, you must be fine, right? You don’t really need a little extra time to complete your work or to get instructions in writing or to sit in a quiet place so you can concentrate. You can just high function your way around all those little problems and get stuff done like a normal person.

On the flip side,  people labeled as low functioning are more likely to be abused, as described by Feminist Aspie.

People who cannot or will not pretend to be neurotypical to make you comfortable – the so-called “low-functioning autistics” – are treated appallingly in our ableist world; because their disability is visible, their personhood, feelings and strengths are ignored.

Non-speaking autistic self-advocate Amy Sequenzia writes for Ollibean

Functioning labels are useless for the autistic person. We don’t wake up every morning and think: “I am so low-functioning, I feel so sorry for myself, I am too needy and I don’t really have a chance to be valued”. We wake up and face the life we have, being the best we can be… And we don’t wake up every morning and think: “I am so high-functioning, I look almost normal. Today I will try to be normal, like my peers. I want to be just like them, indistinguishable from them”. We wake up and face the life we have, being the best we can be.

Instead of relying on inaccurate labels, remember that every autistic person is an individual.  Presume competence and provide the services and supports needed to let them succeed in their own way.

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