Why Autism Functioning Labels Are Harmful -- and What to Say Instead
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.
I have horrible meltdowns — head banging, screaming, crying meltdowns — that last over an hour sometimes. When I am uncomfortable and around new people, I lose the ability to speak and become nonverbal. I barely made it through high school. I can’t drive because of all the sensory input. I tried living in an apartment alone, but spent most nights with my parents because I couldn’t go to college all day and still manage to cook, sleep, and be alone after. I cry every time I go to the doctor because I can’t stand the lights and the smells. I rarely go anywhere alone because I’m afraid of people, of having a shutdown and sitting on the floor of a store. I cannot shower and get dressed within an hour timeframe. I can’t remember to take my meds unless someone tells me. If I’m in sensory overload, I hit myself, scratch myself, scream and pull my hair. And those are just some of my common problems from being autistic.
I definitely wouldn’t be considered “high-functioning” if people saw those sides of me. But I have the ability (sometimes) to hide those autistic traits of mine until I am home alone or with people I trust. If I feel sensory overload coming on at work, I hold it in until I am at home. That doesn’t make me high-functioning, it just means I’ve been bullied so much for being different, I’d rather put myself through physical agony to hide it as much as I can.