January 20, 2015

This article will look at the term` low-functioning` and how it`s use isn’t helpful for people with autism.  Much like the term high-functioning it may not be meant as an insult, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other, better and more appropriate things that could be said.  Below are some of the reasons why `low-functioning` is not the best phrase to use when describing a group of people with autism.

Implications – what does the term `low-functioning` normally imply? It is normally used for machines or devices that aren’t working as well as they should be. Maybe they are running slowly, or aren’t performing all the tasks that would be expected of them.  This is one reason why using the term `low-functioning` isn’t the best way to speak about people with autism.

Categorising – if somebody is categorised as `low-functioning` then the impression that is given about them is that they aren’t capable of doing as much as `high-functioning` people.  Somebody might be called low functioning because they are not verbal.  They might be clever, articulate and able to perform certain tasks, but because of the term `low-functioning` people will assume that they can`t do much, and the things they can do can easily become lost.

Expectations – whereas expectations of `high-functioning` people can lead to their needs being ignored, expectations of `low-functioning` people can lead to their desires and opinions being ignored. Frequently when somebody is classified as `low-functioning` any care or assistance given to them by professionals is seen as making the most of a bad situation,  rather than just  helping somebody out with their issues, or helping them to achieve their potential – it is almost as if somebody has decided that these people are beyond hope.

Segregation – it is unfortunate that some people with so called `high-functioning` autism may unintentionally look-down on those with so called `low-functioning` autism, but it is true – divisions and segregation can spring up among people on the autism spectrum. One of the most frustrating things for somebody with autism is constantly having to explain to people who don’t understand, that autism is a spectrum, and affects everybody differently.  When people are separated from each other even further by being put in to sub-groups, it can lead to even some people with autism not understanding that everybody with autism is on the same spectrum.

Calls up memories of the past – looking back at various terms that have been used to describe people with conditions such as autism in the past, they seem shocking and out-dated now. But to call somebody low-functioning today seems like a very clumsy way to phrase what is actually a very complicated diagnosis.  It could be said that somebody struggles to function day to day with tasks A, B and C, but with everything else they get along alright – not to say they don’t have problems – but to simply call somebody `low-functioning` seems a very broad stroke, and somewhat outdated.

People use phrases like `low-functioning` all of the time – probably to describe someone they know, one of their own family members, or even themselves.  This article is not meant to imply that these people are doing something knowingly wrong, it is merely suggesting that the term `low-functioning` may be out-dated.  Most people wouldn’t like to be referred to as `low-functioning`, and really when coming up with any term to describe a group in society, it is important that all other groups who will use the term think about how they would feel if it was applied to themselves.

 If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others.

Please note: In our second book we have chosen to use the term `high-functioning` when we are explaining that it is sometimes used in place of Asperger`s Syndrome.  I have been thinking more about functioning labels though, which is why I have written these articles, Paddy-Joe



About the author 

Paddy-Joe Moran

Paddy-Joe Moran is a nineteen year old author of two books and blog writer with Aspergers from the U.K.
Blog. http://askpergers.wordpress.com/
Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/ASKPERGERS?ref=hl
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ASKPERGERS
Books. http://www.jkp.com/catalogue/author/1762

  • Very sensible article. Another reason for not using the term ‘low functioning’ is that it is uninformative, as are most global terms. It’s as useful and as polite as calling someone dumb. Low functioning in what? I’m low functioning in mobility – I can’t drive. And I’m typing this with one finger – I’m low functioning in typing too. How many negatives does it take to qualify for the global ‘low functioning’ label?

  • My daughter has language delays, but I would never describe her as “low-functioning” because there is so much she can do. Actually, a lot of people, when I talk about what she can do, say, “Oh, she’s high-functioning, then, right?” regardless of her speech.

    I’m never sure how to answer that, because I don’t know what that term means, and neither do they, really. But it doesn’t feel like a good description, regardless of what her personal strengths and weaknesses are.

  • Really good post. Very well said. If the person is on the spectrum then there shouldn’t be any segregation but as society they feel the need for such categories which is all wrong.

  • Thank you for critiquing this horrible term. In my experience, “low functioning” has become a euphemism for “legitimate” autism and therefore deserving of support, while “high functioning” has come to mean “not really in need of services.”

  • Unfortunately the reverse can be negative as well. My son was stuck in a so-called ADSD centre for schooling. The criteria a diagnosis of autism regardless of the different needs and abilities of the children. Where else in secondary education would you do that? The main theme seemed to be how to be less autistic No postive input about autism at all. My son felt discriminated ( his words) against by the lack of choices he had. I’m glad to say he’s no longer there.

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