When we talk about autism, we often throw around terms like “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” to distinguish between severities. However, these phrases are not actual diagnostic terms. They’re mostly used by teachers, therapists, parents, and others as a shorthand way to describe how severely a person on the spectrum is affected.
In spite of the fact that functioning labels are used ubiquitously, they are somewhat controversial. Some find them helpful, yet many find them harmful.
But what exactly do these terms mean? What are the problems with these labels? And what are the possible solutions? The answers to these questions are far from straightforward.
What Exactly Do Functioning Labels Mean?
It’s not an easy question to answer. But generally speaking, those who are typically deemed “high-functioning” are better able to blend in with neurotypicals. The term usually refers to those who are verbal, have average or above-average intelligence, can be mainstreamed into typical classrooms, and overall can “pass” as being non-autistic.
Those who are often labeled “low-functioning,” on the other hand, are less able to blend in and function in society. Those given this label may be non-verbal or minimally verbal, have a comorbid intellectual disability, and show more visible signs of autism—frequent stimming, flat affect, frequent use of echolalia, engagement in self-injurious behaviors, etc.
Sounds pretty basic, right? Well, here’s the problem: autism often doesn’t always fall into neat categories like this, so using functioning labels grossly oversimplifies those on the spectrum.