Why You Should Not Use the Terms “Low Functioning” & “High Functioning” about Autism

Why You Should Not Use the Terms “Low Functioning” & “High Functioning” about Autism

Let me begin by saying just because something is used so frequently, doesn’t mean it’s correct. Always question things. If anything, to just bring clarity to yourself.

Diving in, the terms “low & high functioning” are trash.

First of all, these are not diagnostic terms. When people are diagnosed with Autism, their paper doesn’t say “Low Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder” - how insulting. These terms, however, are used as a shorthand amongst some therapists, parents & teachers. In a professional manner, these terms have been used as a shorthand way to describe where am Autistic Individual falls on the spectrum. While in these professional cases, the terms may seem helpful, those within the community feel they are extremely harmful.


Take a minute & think of what an individual with “high functioning Autism” looks like & one with “low functioning Autism” looks like. I could be wrong but I’m gonna take a stab at it. Does the “low functioning” person have some behavioral issues? Are they non-verbal? Severe cognitive delays? & the “high functioning” person is verbal but misses some social cues? Highly intelligent & can “pass” as not Autistic? I had this conversation with my Dad & it was really eye opening for us both. In it, he asked why the terms were bad & I broke it down like I did above. I then asked him “based on those stereotypical assumptions of each type, where would you say Jackson falls?” He said “I would say verbally delayed because ‘low’ just sounds bad”

& that was the moment.


When people use the terms, they don’t really think of the damage they are potentially causing to either side, but specifically those labeled “low functioning”. It makes those individuals seem like they are so below everyone. Like they’re a burden & are incapable of survival. On the flip side, those labeled on the opposite end are deemed “almost normal” or not Autistic enough. Basically, to say someone is “low” or “high” is assuming the spectrum is a linear balance that can be tipped one way or another. & that’s completely false.


While the terms may try to make Autism easier to understand, it drastically over simplifies those on the spectrum. Autism isn’t something that is meant to be understood over a cup of coffee or a quick article you read on FB. It doesn’t always fall into cute, little, digestible categories. Because the spectrum is a SPECTRUM. There are no blanket answer solutions or phrases.


While we’re here, the terms “mild”, “moderate” & severe” are also gross. While these terms have been used as diagnostic terms in the past, I wouldn’t recommend using them in every day conversation. Jackson was diagnosed with moderate to severe Autism mainly because of his lack of verbal communication. That doesn’t mean I tell people Jackson has moderate Autism - EW! Why would I even!? It honestly sounds like the dumbest brag. I’ve also heard of Levels of Autism for a diagnosis & it lines up with the terms above ranging 1-3.

By removing the “high” & “low functioning” labels, it allows us to learn more about each other & use more accurate descriptions of individuals.


What to use instead:

  • Break down their needs & strengths because no 2 are the same

  • Incorporate Levels of Support


I truly hope this helped someone wondering if this is ok & let me know if you have any questions!

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1 comment

I am reading your high and low functioning article
You present very compelling information and as a school leader serving many students with disabilities and operating three different special education setting classrooms, I am alllll done using high and low.
Thank you. I will be taking this learning forward to those I work with.

Denise Soukup

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