Why autism functioning labels are harmful -- and what to say instead

Jessica Flynn


Commonly, when you hear someone say they know someone who is on the autism spectrum, you immediately hear them continue the topic with one of the following: “Oh, but he’s high-functioning.” “She’s on the other side of the spectrum.” If you haven’t heard this in a everyday conversation, consider yourself lucky. But you’ve probably at least seen it in articles or organizations that are meant to support the autism population.

I get it, its been common terminology for a long time. It’s not entirely your fault if you use it, but now’s the time to learn and change the use of functioning labels for our autistic friends, family, and community. I am autistic. On my diagnosis paperwork, it does not say high-functioning or low-functioning. It just says autistic, yet I am constantly called high-functioning from doctors, support workers, family members and more. It sounds like a compliment, right? I might be autistic but at least I’m high-functioning, right? Wrong.

When you call an individual high-functioning, it can be used in a way to diminish their struggles, or suggest we don’t have it as hard as typically considered “low-functioning” autistics. But that’s not true. Everyone’s ability changes depending on the situation, their mood, the amount of sleep they’ve had, etc. I went to a typical high school and wasn’t in any special education classes after grade school. I can communicate verbally (most of the time), I’ve been working for years as a caregiver for other people with disabilities. I am now in college. Therefore, it may seem like I am doing pretty well and that I might not struggle as much as people with autism on other sides of the spectrum. But you don’t see the times when I am that person on the “other side.”

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