Functioning is nowhere near linear. Functioning is fluid, and functioning labels harm autistic people and promote ableism. They deny agency to those of us who are deemed low-functioning and they deny support for those of us deemed high-functioning. THEY NEED TO GO.
Moreover, neither label provides you with any meaningful information about a person, their needs, or their strengths.
In theory, it seems that functioning labels are supposed to provide information on how an autistic person might function within society, but in reality, functioning is much more complex than that and can’t be explained away by a single label. Plus, what one person might see as functioning another person might view differently. It’s all quite arbitrary.
For instance, someone may be a college graduate and live and drive independently, which might lead people to believe that they are high-functioning, but those small facets of that person don’t take into account that they are unable to manage their finances, forget to engage in hygiene practices, and experience regular self-injurious meltdowns.
I could easily describe to you what might seem like characteristics of two people with very different abilities, barriers, and skill sets while using polarizing qualities within myself to come up with the characteristics for these “two” people, demonstrating why functioning labels don’t work. Autistics function in different ways depending on the task at hand, the day, their energy level, the amount of sleep they’ve gotten, if they’re feeling well, etc.
It’s much more beneficial to talk about an autistic person’s strengths and struggles. Doing so will provide you with a greater sense of who they are as a person and will be much more helpful than an arbitrary label.
Being told that you’re high functioning can be dismissive and isn’t all that helpful while in the midst of an autistic shutdown or experiencing autistic burnout and you’re struggling just to do basic tasks like get out of bed. You can be told things like “you do so well for yourself” and “just suck it up.”
When people think of you as high functioning, they can tend to think you might not need accommodations or that you don’t experience struggles directly related to being autistic. As such, your needs might be ignored simply because you don’t fit the picture of what someone might think of when they think of autism.
Conversely, when people think of you as being low functioning, you might be left out of certain opportunities and be dismissed before even getting a solid chance. People may think that you don’t have anything to bring to the table and may overlook you completely or may talk down to you.
Functioning labels also further divide the autistic community and create a sense of othering within the community. People will say things like “they’re that kind of autistic while I’m this kind of autistic.” We’re all autistic. Period. Yes, we all navigate life in different ways with different strengths and while facing different barriers, but we all have being autistic in common.