The BIGGEST Problem with the “High Functioning” Autism Label

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Here lies Hunter, a “high functioning” autistic person.

This wasn’t just a photo op. This was me. During a workday. Vacant. Listless. Crushed.  Anything but “high functioning.”

I once used this label, but you can clearly see the problem here. While may seem like functioning labels help, they can’t capture the key challenges in The Life Autistic.

When most people hear “high functioning,” they think “well adjusted, independent, socially awkward, quirky, but overall highly focused, put together, maintains professional decorum, despite some weirdness.” 

And then the opposite, where people assume “lower functioning” in more dependent autistic people, the ones who “haven’t overcome their depression” and can’t hold steady job performance, remain prone to languorous spells, and can’t always be “on top of their stuff.”

Those people can be one and the same.

It’s embarrassing to admit that, despite my efforts, achievements, and relative professional success — I can’t always be 100%. Some days it’s embarrassingly close to 0%.

And I’m a family man — wife, three daughters, two dogs — I support a household!

You would expect that kind of person, husband, father, worker, data professional to have it mostly together and stay above the fray all of the time.

I don’t.

And we don’t.

The biggest problem with the “high functioning” autism label is that it assumes we can function highly all or most of the time. 

I don’t.

And we don’t.

I tried everything that day, and just nothing worked to kick me out of a mental, emotional, functional stupor. My only success was not canceling the meetings I had for the day, in a teeth-gritting effort to summon a smile and conduct some business over web chat. But for most the day, I sunk and stayed sunk in the danker parts of an autistic cave.

There’s no “tips” or “tricks” today.

Just truth.

Even among the “best” of us, even in doing our best, we are always one brush away from our worst—function be damned.

I do hope this helped offer some perspective on how we autistic people function day-to-day. Even when it’s “high” for some of us, it’s not always high. To discover more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic – or follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Twitter / Instagram. Thanks.

2 thoughts on “The BIGGEST Problem with the “High Functioning” Autism Label

  1. Thank you for this post. I have 2 teens on the spectrum. One high functioning and for this child it’s actually harder for me to understand so I appreciate you shedding some light on this!

  2. Thanks for this honest explanation. I have two teens on the spectrum both different and one HF that is sometimes harder for me to understand. It makes me look at things in different way so thanks

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