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The Truth About Autism Functioning Labels

Since we are halfway through Autism Awareness Month, I would just like to talk about functioning labels. In the autistic community, many people use functioning labels to describe either themselves or others, such as “high functioning” and “low functioning.” While functioning labels can serve a purpose to some extent, they also cause great harm. They attempt to describe the challenges an autistic person faces, but because of assumptions inherent in the labels, their assets or deficits are either overemphasized or underemphasized.

As someone who is considered “high functioning,” more specifically, Asperger’s syndrome, I cannot count how many times people insinuate that I am basically “normal” or neurotypical. The more I think about it, the more I start to believe that neurotypicals are the primary people promoting functioning labels. If you think about it, the term “high functioning” describes how close you are to “normal” or neurotypical. If you have an average to above average IQ, cognitive and verbal ability, you would be described as “high functioning.” Someone who is perceived as below average in most or all of these areas will more than likely be described as “low functioning.”

Autistic people who are labeled as “low functioning” because they need significant support in everyday life are often underestimated. Due to the scarcity of resources for autistic adults, many are confined to institutions or group homes and do not have the opportunity to achieve their true potential.

So-called “high functioning” autistic individuals face a different set of challenges. They may thrive academically and intellectually, but still struggle socially and emotionally. Since they come across as cognitively proficient, they are expected to function in society the same way as a neurotypical, especially once they reach adulthood. This is where things become more difficult, because we are often aware of what people expect of us, but it is difficult for us to meet those expectations.

I believe these often unrealistic expectations are a great source of anxiety in individuals with “high functioning” autism. As the saying goes, “When you’re high functioning, your deficits are ignored. When you’re low functioning, your assets are ignored.” I think the autistic community should emphasize both our assets and deficits equally and stop using these limiting labels.

Getty image by Dean Drobot.

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