In the parlances of many medical and educational professionals, as well as among the majority of autistic and non-autistic individuals who speak and write about autism, autistic individuals are classified into two broad categories: those of high functioning and low functioning individuals. The stereotypical high functioning individual is often—though not always—a person who would be considered to have Asperger’s Syndrome. They are socially inept, often extremely quirky and with an interest in a subject so intense that they can often talk about nothing else. The stereotypical low functioning autistic person is much more obviously disabled. They may be limited in their ability to walk, talk or have any real control over their gross motor functions. Their intelligence will be low, and they will not be able to take care of themselves: they will, in short, be disabled.

Any actual discussions or characterizations of autism are of course more nuanced than this, but this portrayal of autism condenses a number of stereotypes associated with functioning labels (that is, high functioning and low functioning autism). While autism composes a spectrum of different behaviors and individuals, it is often lumped in this way into two categories: quirky and disabled. This imagined dichotomy is not only inaccurate but also at times harmful to autistic individuals, not only because it marginalizes the struggles of those who are well adapted, but also downplays the true strengths of those whose difficulties are greater.

 First and foremost, functioning labels do not accurately classify or describe the autistic experience. Many autistic people do not fall anywhere near either of the boxes that functioning labels might place them in, so these terms do not provide accurate labels for them. For instance, a person who often passes for neurotypical, but in certain high stress situations is very limited in their ability to function. Or, take the autistic person who is mute and can’t make eye contact, yet writes masterful poetry and teaches online classes on writing. Or the autistic person who must use a wheelchair because they do not have full motor control, and yet has an incredible intellect. Functioning labels leave no room for these individuals, whose spectrum of abilities give autism its full name.

Secondly, and more importantly, the use of functioning labels reinforces an assumption about how people should be that is fundamentally incorrect. That is that there is a right and a wrong way for a brain to function. By using terms such as high functioning and low functioning autism, we make the assumption that there is a level of functioning that these labels approach, high functioning being closer to the ideal, and low functioning being farther away. However, there is no such thing as an ideal brain or an ideal way of being. That is what makes humans so diverse. And diversity is a great thing.