Autism Functioning Labels

Why they are not helpful.

What’s The Big Deal?

After being around the autistic community for a while, you will come across the use of functioning labels.

Kat Williams in her National Center for Mental Health article writes:

Functioning labels, though not a diagnostic tool, are allocated arbitrarily to identify someone’s communication methods and intellectual ability: those labelled ‘high functioning’ typically have no speech or language delay (or the delay is not significant), communicate through speech, and have normal to high intellect; and those labelled ‘low functioning’ typically do not use spoken language, instead using an alternative form of communication such as a picture exchange system (PECS), sign, or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), and/or have an intellectual disability.

For those labelled high functioning, it can be incredibly difficult to get external support once diagnosed.

‘High functioning’ is not how an autistic person experiences being autistic, it’s how society experiences the autistic person.


The American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) in 2013. In the United States and many other countries, the DSM-V is the reference guide healthcare professionals use to diagnose autism and other mental and behavioral conditions. It contains three different “severity” levels of autism with the highest level three requiring “very substantial support”.

Problems With Functioning Labels
  • Labels Don’t Reflect Reality: Autistic people’s abilities to function constantly change. Everyone has had a bad day where they can barely do anything. Autistic people are no different, and their abilities to function often fluctuate dramatically during a single day.
  • Labels Limit Who Gets Accomodations: Unless you are considered “low functioning” then automatically your accomodation needs will get ignored. It assumes “low functioning” people lack intelligence so they get denied opportunities, and “high functioning” people are assumed to be normal and denied support.
  • Labels Are Not Helpful: Slapping a label on someone does not tell you anything useful about their specific needs.
  • Labels Are Often Ableist: Instead of accepting people how they are, people are taught to believe being disabled is bad. So being labeled “high functioning” must be much better than “low functioning”.
  • Labels Divide Us: People can use labels as a means to silence autistic voices they don’t approve of.
Studies Show Functioning Labels Are Harmful

Recent studies have shown that:

high cognitive “function” had no connection to high function in other areas of life — an autistic person with high cognitive abilities can struggle significantly socially or emotionally.

In 2022 People Are Still Trying To Use Them

The National Council On Severe Autism (NCSA) wants to add a new category to the DSM-5. Can you guess what they want to call it? If you guessed “Severe Autism” you are right.