Autism Wiki
Laura Tisoncik Functioning Labels Quote

Functioning labels are the practice of labeling someone as "high-functioning" or "low-functioning." Some Autistic people and their loved ones dislike this binary for a variety of reasons, including what it implies about Autism and how it has been used to the detriment of Autistic people. However, the removal of labels presents issues for parents of low functioning Autistics in that they believe that services that are needed will not be provided to the appropriate level.


There is uncertainty exactly how "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" is defined.[1][2] It could be based on whether someone can, does, or appears to be able to...

  • Speak
  • Live independently, or appear to live independently
  • Attend school or hold down a job
  • Write
  • Test as having an IQ above some number
  • Read
  • Hold an opinion
  • Pass as neurotypical to onlookers

Researcher Michelle Dawson has examined various definitions of functioning labels in Autism research papers.[3] She notes that many researchers used IQ thresholds, usually with cutoffs anywhere between 50 and 90. In the most traditional definition, one would need an IQ of 140 or 150 to be called high-functioning, but in reality it applies to everyone who has a higher than average IQ level.

Low-Functioning Label[]

The low-functioning label has been criticized for reasons including:

  • The label treats them as somehow lesser and focuses on deficits. Amy Sequenzia notes that she and others can't take care of themselves, but "neither can Stephen Hawking."[4] This is not to dismiss those who aren't geniuses, but to point out that self-care abilities are not everything.
  • Their abilities may be ignored.[5]

However the label is required for legal reasons in order to provide a definition within the laws governing human rights in most developed countries, and protect these vulnerable people from discrimination and abuse.

High-Functioning Label[]

The high-functioning label has also received plenty of criticism.

  • Children given this label may view themselves as superior to other autistic people, and grow up to be very disrespectful towards those who struggle more.[4][6]
  • It minimizes the need for support and may make it harder to ask for help.[4][7][8]
  • It places pressure to perform perfectly.[7]

This however is easily prevented through educational efforts and properly applied adjustments.

Functioning Binary[]

Some Autistic people and their loved ones take issue with the simplification of Autism into a binary.

  • It oversimplifies Autism.[9] For example, one Autistic person may be able to write eloquently and earn a salary, but not be able to speak or take care of themselves. Another might socially pass as neurotypical but be unable to cross the street.[7]
  • Individual needs and abilities change over time.[9][10]
  • It can be limiting.[11]
  • Autism is not a competition and Autistic people should not be graded.[12][6][13]
  • It is not defined by the individual, so much as the prejudices and expectations of others.[14]
  • It places serious expectations on the Autistic person, either disappointing and negative low expectations or difficult and stressful high expectations.[8][10]

However the converse has also applied where the base of the condition of Autism is the same and the Spectrum is a separate step, it is possible to move up and down the Spectrum, limits are primarily placed on Autistics by general society who also cause the competition issue.

Use as Silencing Tactic[]

Functioning labels are a convenient way for Autism Speaks and other organizations to invalidate the thoughts of Autistic people who disagree with them.[15]

They could label the Autistic person as high-functioning, and then claim that the Autistic person cannot speak for the "real" Autistic people and should be quiet.[16] Alternatively, they could label them as low-functioning, and then state that they aren't smart enough to understand and should be quiet.

Why some autistics use functioning labels[]

Some autistics use functioning labels as a way to describe how they experience Autism. This is because, while it is binary, it is a simple way to explain their experiences in a situation where it is not necessary to complicate things and explain every sympton they have. This use of functioning labels is therefore a way of explaining autistic experiences in a more casual setting, and may be easier to explain to someone who does not know much about Autism.


It has been suggested that, instead of using a functioning label to describe a person, the person simply be called "Autistic." If more specificity is needed, one could describe specific needs and abilities.

The Caffeinated Autistic gives an example of a description that does not use functioning labels.

"Jane is a nonspeaking autistic who needs an aide to assist with feeding and dressing because she has difficulty with her motor skills."[16]

The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism calls it as painting "a picture of a person rather than a disability." For instance, rather than calling Jimmy low-functioning, one would say

“Jimmy, an autistic boy (or a boy with autism, whichever you prefer) who has poor expressive, but great receptive communication, likes to spin, and is obsessed with dogs.”[17]

However, in order to obtain services and protect from discrimination, the label is needed. In Australia, Autism is provided for in the Disability Discrimination Act, defined as "a disorder...that results in the person learning differently from a person without the disorder..." and/or "a disorder...that affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment or that results in disturbed behaviour".[18]