As you know, Autism is exhibited by a wide range of verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction, and abstract behaviors. And because the disorder can be displayed in so many ways, there is a tendency to categorize people with Autism into groups. Of these groups, the labels of high or low functioning are perhaps the most damaging, and for several reasons.

What Is High Functioning Autism?

High functioning means that the individual is better able to engage in conversation, control emotional reactions, or grasp abstract ideas. With an equivalent IQ of around 85 to 100, sufferers are easier to communicate with. The need for repetitive behaviors or erratic emotional reactions are still common, but may be displayed in a more subdued manner.

What Is Low Functioning Autism?

The function level refers to the ability to communicate both verbally and emotionally. A low-functioning individual typically has a reduced vocabulary, and will be less prone to initiate interaction. Learning new tasks will be more difficult and outbursts may be more severe.

Good Days / Bad Days

An autistic child will have days when communication and self-expression are more difficult than others. This means that the severity of the symptoms will vary, and that makes the use of labels like high and low functioning somewhat problematic.

On a good day, low-functioning individuals will have more periods of higher communication, for example, while a bad day for a high-functioning individual may reduce their ability to express even simple concepts. If the evaluations were made on those days, the one with higher communication capabilities could be incorrectly labeled as low-functioning, and vice versa.

Broad labels such as high and low are not ideal descriptions, and only look at the condition from a surface perspective.

Where The Labels Come From

The word “autism” was first coined in 1908, and used solely in conjunction with a category of schizophrenic behavior. It was first associated with and studied in children in 1943. As the condition gained attention, it became categorized with labels to indicate the severity of the condition.

Today, those categories have largely been replaced by categories and syndromes that are used to more accurately describe the full spectrum of various autistic behaviors.

How Labels Hurt Individuals With Autism And Their Families

As descriptors of autism, “high” and “low” are simply inadequate. They place brands on individuals that affect the way they are treated and the level of interaction they receive. This can be detrimental to a care and education program, especially once we accept that the degree of symptoms can be shown to fluctuate. This is partly because parents are more likely to be reluctant to accept the title of “low-functioning,” for instance, rather than referring to a specific type of autism which includes so-called low functioning behavior patterns.

In both high and low functioning individuals, the care and educational process should be tailored around that individual rather than a generic program which addresses a cognitive or behavioral level.

Learn about the Sarah Dooley Philosophy & Approach to Education

How Labels Hurt Autism Awareness

Labels can be dangerous in another way, too. By using labels that strictly categorize those with autism, we create confusion about the condition, how it should be perceived, and what can be done to treat it.

If a label is necessary, use category types, such as Asperger’s Syndrome, or PDD. This provides an indication of the level of functioning, but includes specific symptoms and behaviors that are associated primarily with that type. Autism manifests in many different ways, at all levels of severity, and that much information requires more description than simply addressing the individual’s level of communication.

To learn more about caring for children with Autism, take a look at the Sarah Dooley Center website or give us a call at 804-521-5571.

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