Alternatives to Autism Functioning Labels
Autism used to be divided into “High-functioning Autism” or Asperger’s Syndrome and “Low-Functioning Autism”. Commonly these are conflated with the ability to speak and various self-care skills. Though these have since been lumped together into one diagnosis- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the DSM-V in the United States. But people still use HFA/LFA and Asperger’s and “mild” and severe informally as descriptors.
Autistic activists have been critical of this distinction long before the “merger” of autism labels. No matter how well-meaning, they are frequently used against us- too high or low functioning for this or that service, based on shallow observations and assumptions, this person’s life is easy, this person’s life is hard, this person’s experiences are a valid representation of autism, this person’s aren’t. It isn’t flattering to be told “you’re doing well for someone with autism “. I want to be doing well *for me* relative to my abilities, skills, effort and what makes me happy- which might not fit other people’s ideas of success, but look at our society- I suppose Donald Trump is considered “successful”.
At the same time, I understand the need to communicate what sorts of skills and abilities an autistic person has. But in fact, moving away from functioning labels may actually be helpful in getting people to better understand autism and all the ways it can manifest. To be honest, I don’t think there is actually a good way of “replacing” functioning labels with something more accurate and less ableist. It’s a lot more qualitative- someone’s ability to do a particular task well often depends on what else is going on- sensory input, interactions with other people, disruptions or lack thereof in expected schedules and plans. Heck, this is the case for most human beings, autistic people are just more easily affected by these things.
The best shorthand descriptor is I (or my child/student etc.) need X type of support, accommodation etc. What I find difficult is that many people only seem to understand- or even legally allow, or portion out needed funding for an accommodation if it is necessary *all the time*, when many of them are for me pretty situational. “That’s not an accommodation- that’s just a preference”. Sometimes getting my preference can mean the difference between a job well done and a job done at the bare minimum. It’s not always this petty thing, like being allowed to decorate my cubicle or not.
I can go to work and do Task X at Pace Y, but then you throw in an office party, and I may need a break between that and doing regularly expected Task X in order to do it competently. I may get permission to skip the office party, but skipping every office party may result in some unforseen social consequence, because Everyone Was Told X Thing at the Party, um hello, duh? Policy change, competition announcement, co-worker wondering why I didn’t congratulate him/her on the birth of their new child. Or just the general perception that I am not a “team player”. Explicit communication please!