Why the labels “high-functioning autism” and “low-functioning autism” are problematic

The labels “high functioning” and “low functioning” are both commonly used to describe individuals on the autistic spectrum. High functioning autism generally refers to individuals that have the basic life skills to live independently, and are usually on the mild end of the spectrum. Low functioning autism generally refers to individuals that show more severe symptoms of autism, and are usually in the severe end of the spectrum. These labels however can be misleading and cause stigma among the autistic community, and in this blog post I will go into more detail as to why this is the case.

In my opinion, the biggest problem of using these functional labels is that it gives an impression that autism is something that should be considered as binary, where people with autism are either in the high functioning category or the low functioning category. However, anyone that has knowledge on the autistic spectrum can tell you that there is lots of diversity within the autistic spectrum. No two people on the autistic spectrum are the same, and everyone has different strengths and challenges. Therefore, using functional labels that split people with autism into two different categories essentially contradicts the fact that autism is a spectrum condition. Furthermore, in theory, the point of using these functional labels is to give an indication on how an autistic spectrum can function in society. However, in reality being able to function in society is a lot more complicated than a label, and it depends on so many factors.

One of the main reasons why labelling someone as “low-functioning” is harmful is because in most cases autistics that are given this label either have limited verbal ability or show more severe symptoms of autism. Therefore, what the low functioning label is doing is essentially judging someone for showing more severe symptoms of autism. This comes across as one sided and ignores the positive traits and talents that these individuals have. Some of these positive traits and talents can be an asset to society but can sadly be overlooked and dismissed due to them being labelled as low functioning. For the individual that is being labelled as low-functioning, the stigma that is caused can lead to a massive dent in confidence for the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, you may think that it isn’t harmful to label someone as “high-functioning”, but the high-functioning label is equally as harmful as the low-functioning label. Calling someone “high-functioning” can backfire badly as it comes across as dismissing the challenges that these individuals face, in that they don’t have it as bad as “low-functioning” individuals. However, even individuals that are referred to as “high-functioning” face challenges. In fact, individuals that are referred to as “high functioning” can face barriers when it comes to both asking and accessing the support that they require due to their struggles being overlooked or dismissed. If the required support isn’t accessed, this can lead to autism masking which can then lead to autism burnout. In summary, labelling someone as high functioning can dismiss the struggles they face, which means that they may not access the support they need.

I feel that this topic links nicely to invisible disabilities, which I talked about in a recent blog. People who are labelled as “high functioning” generally face challenges that are less visible on the outside, whereas people who are labelled as “low functioning” face challenges that are more visible. However, challenges that are invisible are just as valid as challenges that are visible. In my opinion, the stigma of these functioning labels is linked to the stigma surrounding invisible disabilities, where the invisible challenges of individuals labelled as “high functioning” get dismissed. Moreover, the challenges faced by individuals labelled as “low functioning” that are visible on the outside, such as being non-verbal are what society essentially defines these individuals by, which is such a shame.

I personally think that we should stop using these functioning labels where possible, and consider the autistic spectrum as a diverse spectrum. Different people on the autistic spectrum will face different challenges that they will need support for, and that cannot be captured in any way by these functioning labels. This is a really important topic to discuss when it comes to autism acceptance, as a big part of autism acceptance is appreciating the diversity of the autistic spectrum. This means that we need to dismiss these functioning labels that effectively are a contradiction to the spectrum aspect of autism.

4 thoughts on “Why the labels “high-functioning autism” and “low-functioning autism” are problematic

  1. Thanks Niraj for yet again another blog filled with your wonderful insight into what it’s actually like living with Autism or as I call it “super powers”. You’re so right about the visible and invisible qualities of human beings. Society gets so caught up in the visible that we ignore what’s lying just beneath the surface, yet every one of us knows that we shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover (or in this case it’s “label”) yet we do it anyway. It’s blogs like yours that make us take a long hard second look and re-evaluate our thinking. Thanks for sharing, please keep going, I really value your insights.

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