A Modern Day Fairy Tale: High Functioning? Low Functioning? {Thoughts from an Autism Mom}

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

High Functioning? Low Functioning? {Thoughts from an Autism Mom}

When people learn of my son's autism diagnosis one of the first questions often asked is, "Is he high functioning or low functioning?"

These are terms used frequently within the autism community, but today I'm going to be entirely honest...I cannot STAND them. I realize they have their place, and are an easy way to quickly explain where a child's skill levels may be...but at the same time they can be quite misleading.

First of all, what do those terms even mean? Is it a measure of intelligence? A measure of how much speech a child has? Does the child who cannot speak, but communicates via technology automatically qualify as low functioning? What if, despite their lack of communication, they are a math genius? Does the 7 year old who is not yet potty trained qualify as low functioning? What if he is fully verbal or communicates well? What about the child who cannot go into the shopping mall without an all out sensory overload meltdown, low functioning? What if he excels academically?

The problem is the term is much too broad, and skill levels of those on the spectrum can vary so widely. Let's take a quick look at my son as an example:

Shaun is 6 years old (7 in August). He is absolutely brilliant. He taught himself to read when he was just two years old. He's also taught himself basic math, has a near photographic memory and his attention to detail is impeccable. He is a technology whiz and amazing at video games. He is very verbal, and though he's come a very long way, still has struggles with communication- particularly 'why' type questions. He is not just smart, but actually gifted as well. Still, at almost 7 years old he is not fully potty trained. His eye contact, though improved greatly from where it used to be, is most often brief and hard to get. He deals with sensory issues that can lead to horrible meltdowns, even aggression. He cannot handle even a sensory-friendly film in a movie theater. He is socially very immature. Brilliant or not, he still has his struggles.

And that's the thing- does the label of high functioning mean they don't still have just as many struggles? Does the label of low functioning mean that they don't still have just as many assets? Every individual on the spectrum has their struggles and their assets, regardless of where they fall. And both need to be recognized. Strengths need to be encouraged, and weaknesses need to be worked on.

Honestly, I don't know if there is a better term out there. I really don't. But perhaps instead of focusing on where a person falls on the spectrum, we should instead look at the individual. High functioning or low functioning, autism is autism and those carrying the diagnosis are amazing in their own ways. We need to focus on the person, NOT the diagnosis.


  1. Very well put. I have a younger brother whom my mom suspected for a long time as ALS, but never had it confirmed. I think overall we should be careful in "labeling" any person, not just ALS children. The person is more than the sum of their diagnoses, right? Oh, and have you read this article? http://www.today.com/health/11-things-never-say-parents-child-autism-11-you-should-2D79526244 I read it earlier this week, and thought of it while reading your post.

  2. I also wanted to let you know that I nominated your blog for a Sunflower Blogger Award. You can find the details here: http://thesquirrelsdiary.blogspot.com/2014/04/sunflower-blogger-award.html Participate if you want! :-)

  3. Another one that annoys me is when people say, "Oh, he has aspergers. Not autism..." as if aspergers isn't on the spectrum and is almost a step above other forms of ASD. Annoying.


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