Why Functioning Labels are Harmful

Originally Written By Pablo, Edited by Lauren


Image Credit: https://twitter.com/aspergette/status/1364500398179024898

What are functioning labels?

Functioning labels are labels that are used by NT’s (typically High/Low functioning.) to distinguish Autistic people based on observable factors related to the perceived ability to “function” in everyday life as opposed to any internal factors within us.

“The use of functioning labels to describe an autistic's ability to function has been used for many years and is still used today. Functioning labels are predominantly used by non-autistic people to describe an autistic's ability to function in society, typically labelling them as either "high-functioning" or "low-functioning".”

Why are they used?

Many of the reasons they may be used are often NT-centric and are essentially counterarguments to what I am trying to advocate. I found a quote from a somewhat ableist article attempting to justify these.

“More often than not, parents with a child with autism are noted to use functioning labels more often to convey to others their unique parental experience given the extremity of their child’s disability. Validated in their experiences and trial and error, the article “The Autism Acceptance Hoax” is based upon the life of Rosanna and ultimately illustrates the often dishevelled, yet gracious circumstances that accompany being the parent of a child with autism.”

Why that is useless and harmful

Even the article kinda admits that these only serve the parents. However, If you did your due diligence and read the article. You may have noticed they claimed that It may help “low functioning” people.

However, this argument is wrong because It fundamentally misunderstands what we are advocating for. We need to have our needs met and we need better accommodations. We don’t want to raise the expectations of “low functioning people” or otherwise overexert them in any other way. (we are only trying to give them the basic human dignity and the opportunities they deserve.) they don’t even quote the “low functioning person” themself. They instead quote the parent which is ableist for a multitude of reasons.

“High Functioning”/Aspergers"

The main harm that high-functioning labels do is that they invalidate our experiences by saying we are “not Autistic enough.” This makes it much harder for us to speak on autism and get accommodations.

“The label of "high-functioning” Autism - which I am often assigned - is also harmful. Because of being labelled as "high-functioning", some of the challenges I face are not taken seriously, with whether I am truly struggling being called into question. The label is misleading because it implies that "high-functioning" autistics can function better than “low-functioning” autistics - this is not the case.”

The Aspergers Term is particularly harmful because of who it is named after. Hans Asperger is quite frankly a horrible person. A lot of his autism research was eugenics.

“Sheffer discovered that he played a critical role in identifying children with disabilities and sending dozens to Spiegelgrund, a children’s ward in Vienna where adolescents were euthanized or subjected to experimentation. Her research culminated in her new book, "Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna.”

“Low functioning”/“Profound” Autism

The “Low functioning” label is also harmful As it often strips Autistic people of their dignity or any opportunities they would get otherwise. These people deserve a way to speak for themselves and to be treated as humans. Instead, this label is used to infantilize them so NT’s can keep speaking over us.

Autistic people have a wide variety of needs so we need to be more specific with them. “Low functioning” provides no way to differentiate someone with extreme sensory aversions from someone who is mute. Instead, it is just a harmful generalization used to invalidate some Autistic people.

What to do instead

The next slide displays a much better alternative visual representation of the spectrum. It shouldn’t be linear, it should be specific to our needs.

All sides of the spectrum are equally Autistic, just with different needs. So we should be more specific about those specific needs instead of labelling us by “severity” and using that as an excuse to silence us.



Burns, A. (2019, January 14). "high/low-functioning" labels are harmful to autistics. LDT. Retrieved February 13, 2022, from https://www.learningdisabilitytoday.co.uk/why-highlow-functioning-labels-are-hurtful-to-autistic-people

Najee'ullah, N. (2020, September 30). What's your stance? : The ongoing debate of functioning labels . Full Spectrum Child Care, LLC. Retrieved February 13, 2022, from https://www.fullspectrumchildcare.com/blog/whats-your-stance-the-ongoing-debate-of-functioning-labels

Reese, H. (2018, May 22). The disturbing history of dr. Asperger and the Movement to reframe the syndrome. Google. Retrieved February 13, 2022, from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.vox.com/platform/amp/conversations/2018/5/22/17377766/asperger-nazi-rename-syndrome

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