Autism and neurodiversity

Why functioning labels are damaging and irrelevant

Colourful mosaic tiles in circular patterns

What’s in a name? Where autistic people young and old are concerned, all kinds of labels are attributed to them. One type of label is the ‘functioning label’. The terms ‘high-functioning autism’ and ‘low-functioning autism’ are used to determine what sort of support autistic people need.

Both terms are used quite frequently by autism professionals in various roles. High-functioning autism is used to describe an autistic person who tends to be a good learner and be able to live independently. Low-functioning autism is used for autistic people who have greater support needs and find it harder to learn.

Functioning labels are seen as the norm in some circles, but amongst large parts of the autistic community, they are seen as offensive, inaccurate and, ultimately, pointless. At their worst, they can be extremely damaging to an autistic child’s long-term prospects.

A label can last a lifetime

If an autistic child receives a diagnosis of low-functioning autism, it seems like an admission on the diagnosticians’ part that said child will not be able to lead a fully independent life. That isn’t the only problem with this label, though.

Having such a tag may hinder the opportunities they are afforded as children, potentially being put into special schools rather than mainstream ones. In not being given the same opportunities as their neurotypical (NT) peers to gain qualifications and learn about the world around them, it may hinder them as adults.

As for so-called ‘high-functioning’ autistic people, this label is given to those who find it easier to blend in with non-autistic people. This label is highly insulting to autistic people who find it harder to act like NTs and, in the process, puts those with the high-functioning label under pressure to be ‘normal’ all the time. From personal experience, doing this can be draining.

We are not machines

The word ‘functioning’ likens autistic people to machines, which is really offensive. Much like those who aren’t autistic, we have feelings, emotions, strengths and difficulties. We’re all different. The way in which we ‘function’ can vary from day-to-day. If everything is okay around us, we are fine. If something is on our mind or overloading us, we might find it harder to cope.

Functioning is a word that can seem cold and clinical. Applying this to an autistic child early on can really dent their self-confidence throughout their lives. A simpler term – autism – would be easier to remember and is less likely to stigmatise them.

As the popular saying goes, if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. We are all different. Some of us are good at communicating verbally, whereas others prefer to do so via text, sign language or Makaton. Some of us can cope in crowds, while others can’t. We all have things we excel at and tasks we find hard, just like non-autistic folks.

Just ‘autistic’ will do

The use of functioning labels is, in effect, splitting autistic people into two distinct groups. While there are those among us who have difficulties, dividing us creates confusion. To avoid that, those tasked with giving diagnoses should refrain from using these much-derided labels. Autism is a spectrum, where many of us have different needs and skills.

By recognising that, functioning labels can be consigned to the dustbin of history. So, what should they use instead? Just a simple diagnosis of ‘autism’ will do. With that, the potential for autistic people to receive the right support and thrive well into adulthood will be far greater.

Persisting with these outdated labels will continue to harm autistic people, irrespective of their needs or talents. Those labelled as low-functioning will remain written-off, while the weight of expectation to ‘be normal’ will give those known as high-functioning extra pressure they may find hard to deal with.

A question of dignity

Functioning labels focus on the negatives of being autistic, regardless of how they are used. Avoiding them can prove really useful, particularly when trying to build up someone’s confidence. If, for example, you’re telling your child about their autism diagnosis, saying that they are low-functioning can make them feel bad about it. Just using ‘autism’ avoids all that.

It’s all about respecting the dignity of autistic people. Rather than splitting us up and putting us into boxes, look at what we can do. Doing this will empower your child and help them to feel confident in what they have to offer the world. We don’t need to justify ourselves just because there’s something different about us!

When talking about your child, try to avoid functioning labels if you can. Just use their diagnosis to refer to them – autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. That way, you won’t risk offending them if they become more self-aware as they reach their teens and learn more about it.

Additional reading:

About the author

Luke Aylward

Luke Aylward

Luke is an Aspie copywriter and designer based in Leeds. He's the chairman of a local support group and enjoys providing accessible info around all things autism.