The Term ‘High-Functioning’ Has Become Taboo Here’s Why You Should Stop Using It

If you’re familiar with the world of autism, you’ve probably heard the terms high-functioning and low-functioning as it relates to the people on the autism spectrum. The terms high-functioning and low-functioning have become taboo in recent years, here are some reasons why you should stop using them too.  

High-functioning autism (HFA) isn’t a term that’s recognized by the science and medical community, nor is it an official diagnosis but HFA is a term that is usually used to describe those who were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome — before the DSM-5 began labeling all forms of autism on a spectrum which is now called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Someone with HFA is categorized by having mild symptoms of autism — their IQs are usually above 70 points, they can successfully go through a work or school day, these people can also mask their symptoms and pass as neurotypical. People who were previously diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome are not only people who fit the mold for HFA. Those who previously fell under the diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) were also considered high-functioning autistics.

The term first came about in the 80s as a word to describe people who were on the spectrum but did not have an intellectual disability. HFA has, however, morphed into a term widely used in the autism community but researchers found that it wasn’t that simple. After surveying a large group of children with autism — about 2,225 people ages one through 18.


Half of the kids surveyed had intellectual disabilities and half of them did not. They found that the kids who had intellectual disabilities counted on functional skills that matched their IQ levels but those without intellectual disabilities who had a higher IQ didn’t necessarily count on functional skills that went along with their IQ levels. 

So basically, the term doesn’t really mean anything because its definition isn’t actually factual. The perpetuation of this term is detrimental to people with ASD because it continues the spread the idea that those on the spectrum cannot do certain things because of their condition. It may also inhibit these people from accessing the very services they require. 

HFA is also a term that is kind of excluding to a certain group of people. It’s unfair that those who are deemed lower-functioning or average, on the autism spectrum, often end up getting little or no opportunities in their future due to the label forced upon them.

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