📆 January 31, 2023 | ⏱️ 2 minutes read | 🏷️ autism

On the Term "High-Functioning Autism"

I sometimes use the term “high-functioning” in reference to my autism. This is a problematic term.

While it’s true that I need less help to function in society than low-functioning autistics, there is a big catch: I’m far less likely to get the help I need. Low-functioning autistics get help because it’s obvious that they’re neurodivergent. They’re typically diagnosed as children and offered the support that’s available before they can make a mess out of their lives.

On the other hand, I expect to be diagnosed at the age of 24 (I’m 23 now) by one of the few doctors who diagnose adults with autism. I’m pursuing a diagnosis against the advice of almost everyone. My doctors never even mentioned autism until I brought it up. All throughout my life, the same people who constantly criticized me for being different told me there’s no way I could be autistic. The only reason I even know and can seek the proper support is because I figured it out by myself and went against all the people telling me my experience isn’t what it is.

High-functioning autistics endure decades, in some cases a lifetime, of confusion. We stumble through social situations, relationships, and emotions without any explanation as to why we’re having such a hard time. We live lives of rejection without knowing why. We’re told there’s no way we can be autistic. Our differences are downplayed and our special needs are ignored. We’re seen as too strange to be normal, but too normal to be autistic.

It’s precisely because of my ability to camouflage my autistic traits so well that my life has been full of difficulty and confusion. To strangers, I seem like I’m doing well. I don’t struggle as much as a low-functioning person, but they haven’t seen my clicking my fingers in private. They haven’t seen me suddenly run out of a loud restaurant. They’ve never seen me have a meltdown or become so overstimulated I’m unable to respond.

Instead of the term “high-functioning autism”, I propose “low support needs autism”. That makes it clear that while we have less support needs than low-functioning autism, we do still have support needs. Likewise, I propose that the term “low-functioning autism” be replaced with “high support needs autism”. I’ll go over why the term “low-functioning” is problematic in my next entry.