I figured out what “high functioning” means

Just to jump straight to the point here – “high functioning” just means “passes for neurotypical (NT).”

Ok, now the ramble about why I think that and how I reached that conclusion.

Non-autistic (and some autistic) people really seem to want to divide autistic people into two basic categories – high functioning and low functioning. The criteria, however, always seemed to be vague and undefined. Years ago I had found a website (maybe on tumblr? I really don’t remember) that was just a collection of what autistic people had been told makes us high functioning. Sadly it either doesn’t exist anymore or possibly I just can’t find it, but it was a fascinating smattering of things. Maybe it’s because we smile, or because we have a job, or because we talk well or write well, or who knows?!

We autistic people (or, at least, a great many of us) have been trying to say that this division isn’t actually useful or helpful in any meaningful way. For instance – I cannot hold down a job. I’ve tried, it does bad things to me. I can write eloquently enough, but I struggle with conversation and am lost in group dynamics. Usually I can go grocery shopping by myself, but sometimes I will get completely overloaded and end up huddled in a ball with my arms over my head while everyone else gives a wide berth to the strange person doing strange things. 

I am generally labeled as high functioning, even as people who are labeled as “low functioning” can do things that I cannot, like hold down jobs or make eye contact. So why am I called high functioning? Well, it’s simple, really. I am categorized as “high functioning” because during brief interactions, I will often enough pass for NT. Unless there is already something wrong (like I’m having sensory overload) I can mask reasonably well for short periods of time and people are unaware that they are talking to an autistic person. 

The strain of masking can be immense at times and take an absolutely incredible toll, but I do it anyway. Why? Because I fear how people will react if they can see that I’m different. That I’m “not quite right.” As I talked about when discussing whether or not to disclose my autism to my doctors, I worry about assumptions they may make about me. Will they still believe in my ability to have autonomy over my body? Will they be like that one guy I met on a train that one time and ask me where my “handler” is? 

Because that’s how it is. People make a quick assessment of you and then make a whole bunch of assumptions based off that assessment. That’s at least partly only to be expected – we can’t deep dive into the personality and abilities of every person we meet – we interact via shared social cues and assumptions. It’s the only way we CAN interact for basically any brief contact we have with another human being. And that’s fine… until it isn’t. 

Sometimes those assumptions are flawed down to their very core. Like the assumption that “high functioning” people don’t need support, and “low functioning” people just can’t do things. Or that time when someone took my saying that I don’t want to be cured as meaning that I don’t need help. Which just… what? How in the world did you connect those two wildly different points? Yet people do, ALL THE TIME. And one of the things people do is make an assessment of a person based on a few seconds of seeing or interacting with them, judge them to be high- or low-functioning, and then draw further conclusions from that regarding their abilities or their needs.

We need to stop using the terms. Still, when I had the realization that high-functioning just means “passes for NT” it really felt like suddenly things fell into place. Suddenly so many things that had been confusing just made sense. THAT’S why people say that. THAT’S what they mean. And that’s why they have no idea what they’re talking about when they try to use it to figure out what we can or cannot do.

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One response to “I figured out what “high functioning” means

  1. The other thing that drives me a little crazy about the term is that you’re now “slotted” into that category and can’t have bad days. Or times when you become non-communicative because you’re overwhelmed. I think “functioning” is a sliding scale, just like autism in general (and sexuality and gender and a thousand other things that make up who we are).