What are functioning labels? In theory functioning labels are used to describe an Autistic person’s ability to function in society. For example someone may be diagnosed with High Functioning Autism or be told they are severely Autistic. There are many issues with functioning labels so let’s explore those:
- The first thing I have to say about Functioning labels is that they are pretty disgusting. Grading human beings by their perceived usefulness to a society is pretty grim. Of course when we say society we really mean economy. Everyone has a purpose, everyone brings something to this world and if we use functioning labels then we diminish the value of human life.
- Functioning labels are also grossly inaccurate. These labels are assigned from the outside perspective, often with little understanding of the internal state of the Autistic person. There are countless examples of Autistic adults who were labelled as “severely Autistic” as children but who went on to prove this was very wrong.
- Functioning Labels are oppressive. When someone is labelled as “low-functioning” they are often essentially written off. People’s attitudes and expectations change and that child is often denied the same education as their peers.
What do I hear when people use functioning labels?
When I hear people say that I must be very “high functioning” I hear them tell me that I am almost normal. When I hear them say that others are “low functioning” I hear them say that some Autistics are very far from normal . When we use functioning labels for human beings we are assuming that there is a standard way of existing and deviations from this must be pathologized. But as humans we all have our strengths, weaknesses and challenges. Imagine if we tried to label every child in their first year at school. Imagine if we graded them and labeled them as high, medium or low functioning and implied that this was their level of the rest of their lives. Sounds pretty grim doesn’t it? We don’t do that though do we? We only do it to people who we do not recognise as fully human eg. Autistics.
I find the whole idea of functioning labels repulsive. Grading human beings is degrading for those human beings.
Functioning labels ignore natural development. They also ignore conditions that Autistic people may have. Traditionally terms like “low functioning”, “severe” and “profound” were used to describe Autistic people who were unable to speak and / or care for themselves. The use of these terms actually did a huge disservice to Autistics and unfortunately continues to do so.
The Autistic Community is still battling against outdated and oppressive ideas created by those who ought to have known better. “Low functioning” is often inaccurately used to describe Autistic children who cannot speak. There is still an idea that someone’s ability to speak is somehow related to intelligence. But speaking is a motor skill and this idea needs to be challenged whenever it appears. There are countless stories of Autistic people proving their intelligence once they were given the opportunity to do so through sign language or AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication).
IQ tests measure one’s ability to pass an IQ test
We also of course need to look at how we measure intelligence in the first place. Many of these tests are designed without taking into account the way Autistic people communicate, our differences in perception and those of us who have issues with motor skills. IQ tests measure one’s ability to pass an IQ test, they don’t necessarily reflect the internal state accurately. Many Autistic people have been incorrectly labelled as having an Intellectual Disability because of a failure to adjust testing methods. This is why it is so important to presume competence.
Of course all these ideas around functioning labels and measuring perceived value of Autistic humans is based on the idea that autism is a condition. I’ve already written on why being Autistic isn’t something to be medicalised. And if we can move away from this idea then we will move away from harmful, oppressive and inaccurate labels.
We might then be able to appreciate that Autistic people are indeed people. We are people with different dreams, wants, wishes, talents, circumstances, priorities and ambitions.
We might also understand that everyone’s “functioning ability” fluctuates on a daily basis, often changing within a day. It changes at different points of our lives and is dependent on numerous factors. One major factor is how other people regard us and relate to us. Categorising us in how useful you think we might be to an economy is no way to relate to us so let’s find better ways.
We grade cattle. We grade coffee. Grading humans is degrading.