Content note: This article contains discussion of ableist language and behavior. At some of the links, there is further discussion of ableist abuse.
There are a lot of harmful binaries in the world; although not excusable, it is understandable that people cling to them. We like black-and-white concepts, concrete truths, and ideas of good and bad that it is simple to parse out. Unfortunately, human beings are never truly that simple, and disabled people– specifically autistic people, as I am discussing this week (and throughout this month)– are just as complicated.
Neurotypicals have a tendency to categorize autistic people as either high-functioning or low-functioning. An easy way to understand exactly what these terms connote is this: “high-functioning” means “better able to pass as ‘normal’” and “low-functioning” means “less/un-able to pass as ‘normal’”.
Another way to conceive of functioning labels (one that may make some uncomfortable, but one I think is most apt) is “high value” and “low value”. High-functioning autistics are more likely to be able to speak, navigate social situations, hold down a job, drive, and perform other tasks that neurotypicals assign value to; ones they view as essential to being a normal human being. Low-functioning autistics may be unable to talk, or unable to talk in a way that neurotypicals find appealing. They may never be able to pass as neurotypical and are more likely to be confined to special-education and never hold a job.
Our capitalist system assigns the most value to someone able to be productive and convenient, and our society which pathologizes anything that pushes the boundaries of our arbitrary norms. So, many are comfortable assigning a condescending label, low-functioning, to “unproductive and abnormal” people. There are a number of problems with these means of categorization, and the consequences of them can be disastrous.
For one thing, functioning labels, by normalizing a normal/abnormal binary, also normalize abusive therapy techniques, such as ABA. By seeking to “correct” so-called abnormal (and entirely non-harmful) behaviors, they are erasing the unique ways in which autistic people exist. Oftentimes, these practices traumatize them in the process.
These labels also overlook the uniqueness of each autistic person– the fact that everyone, regardless of an arbitrary label, has different struggles and strengths that can’t be neatly categorized. What if someone can drive, but can’t talk? Can attend a mainstream school but struggles to socialize? Can make eye contact, but covers their ears at certain sounds? Functioning labels are unacceptably reductive of the fullness of autistic lives.
Functioning labels justify forms of ableism against both high-and-low-functioning people. People labeled high-functioning are not given autism-specific help when they need it, because neurotypicals, seeing them as “nearly normal”, believe they do not need it. Low-functioning people are condescended to or isolated because they deviate too much from the norm. High-functioning people may not receive an autism diagnosis until adulthood, and then not viewed as valid in their autism when they are. Low-functioning people may be reduced to a diagnosis, and seen as subhuman, “stupid”, and unworthy of attention.
Yes, autism is a spectrum, but not in the way that neurotypicals think. It is not a spectrum with “less autism” on one side and “more autism” on the other. Rather, each autistic person has different qualities, some “more normal” and some “less normal”, and sometimes, this changes with the day and situation.
If you truly want to be “aware” of autism this month, please be aware that autistic people are not divisible into monolithic categories. Functioning labels inhibit any hope of acceptance for autistic people by ranking them according to adherence to normalcy, and this is not okay.