The terms “high functioning” and “low functioning” are often used to describe where people are on the spectrum. Though this attempt at categorization seems to make for an easy distinction between where people fall on the spectrum, it is a terribly flawed demarcation.
First, the terms miss the point of the idea that autism exists on a spectrum. This means that as individuals we have varying degrees of capability in a long list of areas. Any individual may not have certain traits or the traits they do have may present differently than in another autistic person. If you understand calculus, then you might think about the spectrum as a curve, or, perhaps more accurately, many curves. An individual can exist anywhere on these multiple curves depending on what the curve represents. It could mean that on one curve the individual excels at a thing and on another they perform less effectively. You can try to take the sum of those curves and place them on one curve that represent autism broadly and attempt to define their place on the spectrum, but then we fall into a trap of saying “high functioning” or “low functioning” without regard for the persons ability to function in a wide variety of areas.
The idea of functionality is often based on a comparison to ideal neurotypical functionality. This presents its own problems. It assumes that neurotypical functionality is the ideal and superior way to be. Many people with autism can point out weaknesses in neurotypical thought, but because it is an accepted way of thinking by the majority, it is arrogantly considered superior.
The term “high functioning” also comes with some additional problems. The term reflects the idea that the person who is “high functioning” can present as neurotypical. It ignores the fact that we are still autistic and the struggle that we go through every day to keep up the façade. It is a lot of work to appear neurotypical. The term also shows complete disregard for the experience that many autistics had that lead to them being able to present as neurotypical. For many autistics considered “high functioning” they were subject to a lot of abuse and mistreatment to be conditioned to behave that way out of fear. That anxiety is something they carry every day. Every day they live in a world of fear and anxiety to behave in a way that goes against their very nature to please other people, so they aren’t treated badly and can achieve the things they wish to achieve. The life of the “high functioning” autistic is one of continues self-monitoring, emotional suppression, consideration of every word used, whether to speak at all, wondering how much to speak, hiding or suppressing stimming behavior, possibly dealing with sensory issues, etc.
Even after doing all the things high functioning people do on top of trying to live their life and achieve the things neurotypicals do, and because they present as neurotypical, they often have their autism diagnosis questioned or their experience diminished. Those with “high functioning” autism often get to hear “You don’t seem autistic.” This is a phrase that either applauds us for meeting the superior neurotypical way of being or is used to question the diagnosis.
“Low functioning” autistics are often infantilized. This measure is all to often applied simply because some very noticeable aspect of the autistic person doesn’t live up to neurotypical expectations. Such an example might be an autistic that can live independently but doesn’t speak with their mouth. That person may very well speak using a computer or writing. They may very well be able to communicate just fine, but they just don’t talk. For this they are labeled as “low functioning.”
The idea behind these two terms always comes back to neurotypical centrism. These two terms need to be removed from our language. An autistic person is just a person with various levels of capability in certain areas. They are just autistic. We also need to understand that the neurotypical neurotype isn’t necessarily superior. The idea of strength and weakness in a certain area of cognitive functionality depend on the situation and metric being used to make the assessment. For this to change, neurotypicals will have to leave their comfort zone and start thinking and speaking differently when it comes to autism.