The term “high-functioning autism” has been criticized by many individuals within the autism community, as well as by advocates and experts, for a variety of reasons. While it is not inherently offensive to everyone, there are several concerns associated with its usage that highlight potential issues.
Labelling someone as “high functioning” can oversimplify the complex and diverse nature of autism. Autism is a spectrum disorder, and functioning levels can vary widely across different domains, such as communication, social interaction, and sensory processing. Reducing individuals to a single “high” or “low” functioning label fails to capture the nuances of their experiences and abilities.
Dismissal of Challenges
The term “high-functioning autism” might downplay the very real challenges that individuals with autism face. Just because someone is able to perform certain tasks or exhibit certain skills does not mean they do not struggle with other aspects of their life. This label can mask difficulties and hinder appropriate support and understanding.
Underestimation of Support Needs
Individuals labelled as “high functioning” may be overlooked for the support they need, as their challenges might not be immediately apparent. This can lead to a lack of resources and accommodations that could greatly enhance their well-being and success.
Some individuals who are considered “high functioning” may internalize the expectation that they should not experience significant difficulties or need assistance. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, stress, and isolation, as they may feel pressure to constantly mask their struggles.
Comparison and Hierarchy
The term “high functioning” inherently implies a comparison between individuals with autism, suggesting that some are “better” or more capable than others. This kind of hierarchy within the autism community is counterproductive to fostering a sense of unity and mutual understanding.
Social and Identity Implications
Being labelled as “high functioning” can lead to exclusion from autism spaces or communities, where individuals might feel their experiences are not as valid as those of individuals with more apparent challenges. It can also affect an individual’s sense of identity within the broader neurodiversity movement.
Given these concerns, many prefer using terminology that better reflects the complexity and diversity of the autism spectrum. Person-centred language, like “individual with autism” or “person on the autism spectrum,” respects the individuality of each person and avoids overgeneralizations based on functioning labels. It’s important to engage in open conversations with individuals within the autism community and to be sensitive to their preferences and perspectives when discussing these matters.