Functioning Labels – Part 2 – High- Functioning

The terms high and low functioning are used frequently to describe people at various points of the autistic spectrum.  But just how accurate and helpful are these phrases?  This article will look at some issues which might arise at the use of the term high-functioning.  The first thing that needs to be said is that when people use this term they tend to use it in one of two ways – either as a way of  complimenting their own or someone else’s ability, or in a completely benign way, thinking nothing of it and just using it because it’s the phrase everybody else uses.  Some of the possible problems with the term high-functioning are listed below.


  • The term high-functioning is used to describe people who are supposedly at the more intelligent end of the spectrum, more independent, more `normal`, maybe that they have more potential.  However, calling somebody high-functioning can put a lot of pressure on them.  It implies that they don’t struggle daily with aspects of autism, that yes, they are on the spectrum, but they have a much easier time of it than others – and what is this saying about people who can`t be called high-functioning? (this will be dealt with in the next article.)
  • By calling somebody high-functioning the expectations the person has of themselves can be vastly altered. People may find it more difficult to deal with the issues they have because they believe they should not be having such problems.  It almost implies that they are closer to being neuro-typical than other autistic people, thus making them demand more of themselves – trying to fit-in instead of being themselves.
  • Other people can also have the same expectations: when somebody is viewed as high-functioning others are much less willing to accept some of the more difficult aspects of autism because they believe – wrongly – that autism doesn’t affect `high-functioning` people as much.

Help with services

  • Because of the points listed above it can often be more difficult for people with `high-functioning` autism to get services; an example of this is somebody with `high-functioning` autism turning up by themselves for an appointment, conducting themselves eloquently and making a good impression, but the person they were talking to would have no idea of the time, energy and stress that this cost the autistic person before, during and after the event. Somebody with `high- functioning` autism might be able to stand up and talk to a room full of people, but be unable to get the bus by themselves.  This can lead to all kinds of problems with the benefits agency, educational support, and service providers.
  • The term `high-functioning` can not only distort how a person views their own autism, but how other people – even well-meaning people – view them, and their needs.

Divides the Autism Community

  • Unfortunately terms like `high-functioning` can split the autism community in two. People classed as `high-functioning`, or as having Asperger`s Syndrome, may unintentionally appear arrogant, if they try to act as though they are not the same as autistic people.  Or they can feel alienated, as if all services are aimed at people with more obvious needs than themselves – in reality autism and Asperger’s and `high` and `low` functioning are just points on a spectrum.
  • And whether it is classed as `high` or `low` functioning, autistic people are still autistic.

In conclusion the label `high-functioning`, while it might not be intended as an insult, can cause problems due to its misleading nature; because it implies that the individual has a more mild form of autism it can create unfair levels of expectation, and also cause problems with service providers, and educational support.   It may be used and meant in a completely harmless way, but looking at the distortion, and confusion it can cause, it is probably best to avoid the term, and just think of the person as having autism, or as autistic.

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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


  • Pat says:

    I have found that term is used to discriminate against more low-functioning autistics…by the high functioning ones and their parents. You would think they would be more sensitive to discrimination, but they are just as bad as neurotypicals.

  • marty says:

    I am the parent of a 13 yr.old with HFA , we homeschool now which is much much better for everybody involved , just because they are high functioning , they are expected to be like “the typical children” , in the classroom which they most of the time can’t do , which is normal for them .
    Homeschooling is wonderful , after fighting with school systems for 6 yrs. over which modification they were going to put in place ,( quailified for an aide , but wanted to see if modifications work first) then they never ended up doing them anyway ….it’s all most like a game , and the faculty at the school think we are idiots … which I am not) a big waste of everybody,s time ….. all done. We are happy learners now ..
    And then there’s Bullying …..which is a whole other issue itself……sadly

  • Debbie Miller says:

    I am high functioning in terms of educational ability & daily functionin but my autism is fairly strong (‘moderate) as I understand it. I believe that functionality & autism are different areas. People can be high in both, one or neither. I must say both or people won’t believe me because I am too functional.

  • Jam says:

    I often use this term to describe myself to people because it is a well-understood shorthand for a lot of different things. I never say “I am high-functioning,” however; I always say “I am considered high-functioning” or “I have been called high-functioning,” because I think that label is problematic, and I don’t want to claim it for myself, but I cannot deny that this label has affected me. (I was hit with the term “subclinical” when I was first diagnosed, as in a did not require intervention at that time. I got through school without an IEP, for example. But it wasn’t always easy.

    ” It almost implies that they are closer to being neuro-typical than other autistic people, thus making them demand more of themselves – trying to fit-in instead of being themselves.”

    This is really making me think right now. I used to believe that autism as a spectrum had neurotypical at one end, Asperger’s somewhere in the middle, and nonverbal with extreme sensory processing problems at the other. Now I am beginning to realize that “neurotypical” is not on the autism spectrum at all. I used to think that I was “close to neurotypical” but I realize now all of that was a coping mechanism. I can appear neurotypical for certain stretches of time, but eventually I fall back into being myself and people have to either take me or leave me as I am. It takes a lot of energy and anxiety to put up a neurotypical front. I am very independent, and my sensory problems are easier to deal with than what some others face, and I have learned a lot of coping mechanisms and strategies to survive in this world. But I am always drained and have significant nervous breakdowns every few years. I wonder if this is related to how I believed I was “close” to neurotypical, when perhaps I never really was?

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