Is “High Functioning Autism” Useful, or Not?

No great advance has been made in science, politics, or religion without controversy.

high functioning autism debate

Lyman Beecher.

If the quote above is true, then we have room for advancing our understanding of the term, “high functioning autism“, given the amount of controversy the term generates!

I ran across this article about a month ago, called “What’s the Difference Between High Functioning Autism and Low Functioning Autism?” Romana Tate (pseudonym), the mother of an autistic child, strongly expressed her dislike for the term, “high functioning autism.”

Like a lighting rod, her strong argument against the term drew both supporters and dissenters.

In this article, I will summarize opinions (and quote them) for and against the use of the term “high functioning autism“, with a heavy emphasis on opinions from people on the autism spectrum (although I do include some neurotypical opinions). I’ll then offer my own thoughts.

Opinions “Pro” the Usefulness of the Term “High Functioning Autism

Many autistics feel that the term describes them.

I ran an informal poll at WrongPlanet to collect opinions about how useful the term is: 24 people participated:

20 felt the term is useful.

4 felt it is not.

Quite a disparity.

A number of Aspergers readers stated that it describes their level of functioning, which is such that they “blend in” with neurotypicals to a large extent.

Here’s one opinion:

Autism is a gradient issue so it’s certainly not black or white, but a great many highly-functioning persons with autism can indeed blend in with neurotypicals to a large extent. For many of us, self included, getting there is a tremendous struggle (I only realized I was different in my late teens, and gained social skills by observing and copying those around me with innate skills) but it can pay off.

It isn’t about hiding or fooling ourselves at all, but rather a means of being able to lower anxiety levels at the very least and possibly gaining access to a greater world. Being finally able to speak onstage in front of hundreds was a personal triumph for me, and I’m certainly not “hiding" anything nor being untrue to myself as you so coldly generalize. Becoming social has opened doors and made me happy.

It helps identify verbal or intellectual capabilities.

One individual arguing for using the term “high functioning autism” say that it helps define the services needed for each individual.

Another person said that the term can help organizations figure out how to budget for different levels of support.

Opinions Against the Usefulness of the Term “High Functioning Autism”

It’s Too Vague

Here’s an opinion arguing this point:

I don’t like it because the term “functioning” can be too vaguely defined and lead to misunderstanding.
Social functioning?
Physical functioning?
Mental functioning?
And the unfortunate conclusion is that if some people are “high functioning”, are others “low functioning”?
Who judges that and by what measure?
I worked with a non-verbal man diagnosed with classic Autism and considered very low functioning, but after he mastered using an iPod to communicate, he clearly showed himself to be just-as-if-not-more intelligent than average folks.
I have Aspergers and am quite poor at making small talk and conversation, but excel at knowledge in my field. According to some standards, such as social functioning, I might not be considered very high functioning then; but mentally, intellectually, I am quite high functioning.
You see, the terminology lacks clear definition, and could too easily be used to misdiagnose people and set up limitations or perceived limitations that may or may not actually exist.

Yet another person wrote,

I have tried to understand what the term means a number of times and still do not understand it, and I am not unintelligent by any means.

The Term “High Functioning Autism” DeHumanizes Autistics

John Elder Robison spoke about this problem in his article, “High Functioning People Like You Don’t Speak for My Child!

It’s (the term high functioning autism) not accurate, and it’s degrading to us “high and low functioning people." Suggesting that, “you’re a real high functioning autistic" feels to me a lot like “you talk pretty good for a retard." People say the former to me all the time today, and they said the latter to me quite a bit 50 years ago. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.

Both phrases imply I (and all others like me) are pretty good even though we are the “other;" some lesser class of human. How would you feel about that, if it were you?

My Thoughts

Listen. That’s what I need to do. Last week I listened to the Loud Mute for the first time.

As I listened to Barb’s eloquent thoughts and opinions, I realized that I’ve often pre-judged non verbal autistics as somehow not being as “high functioning” as verbal autistics.

Shame on me.

I’m sad to admit that I have bought into many neurotypical myths about autism, including “levels of functioning”.

As I did more and more thinking and reading about “high functioning autism”, I realized that the arguments against using the term outweigh the arguments for using the term.

The more I listen and talk to others on the spectrum, the more I do realize how labels have an impact.

I disagree with Romana Tate that I have the depth of negative assumptions about autism she implied that people have if they have used or use the term, “high functioning autism.”

But I do agree with her and with John Elder Robison that it’s time to stop using the term.

You’ll notice I have the term listed on my site. That’s because so many people search for the term.

But I’m going to reference this article on my main page, to help readers understand my point of view.

What About You?

What do you think? Is high functioning autism a useful term, or not? What should we say instead?

photo credit: Sergiy Kumzman

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I'm Steve Borgman. I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

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  • vmgillen

    “High Functioning,” like any other generic label, should NOT be used. Neither should “autistic”, for that matter. Broad descriptors, including diagnostic codes, support prejudices.

  • Thank you, vmgillen – I agree with you.

  • daproeger

    “High functioning autistic” seems very insulting. This whole idea of a spectrum that puts some over others seems wrong. It is also likely causing dislike and fear from some of the others around the people with Asperger’s.

  • Thanks, daproeger, for your feedback. I appreciate your insights.