Why It’s Time To Trash The “High Functioning/Low Functioning” Distinction

“My child is not like the children here.” She said.


“How do you mean?” I asked.


“He’s passed his tenth grade with 72%. He talks. He can do everything. He has a high IQ. He’s high functioning.” She replied.


“Here we go again….” I thought.


Instead I asked, “So what are your future plans for him?”


“I’m looking for a vocational set up, as he can’t continue with college. I know how much trouble I took to make him study for his exams. He also has high anxiety. Plus, he doesn’t have friends.”


I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had this kind of conversation.


I’m not a fan of the “high functioning/low functioning” distinction.


Take a look at the definitions. (Wikipedia)


High-functioning autism (HFA) is a term applied to people with autism who are deemed to be cognitively “higher functioning” (with an IQ of 70 or greater) than other people with autism. … HFA is not a recognized diagnosis in the DSM-5 or the ICD-10. The amount of overlap between HFA and Asperger syndrome is disputed.


Low-functioning autism (LFA) refers to autistic people with cognitive impairments. Symptoms may include impaired social communications or interactions, bizarre behavior, and lack of social or emotional reciprocity.


Clearly this classification is based on IQ scores, cognition and behavior.
Over a period of time, these definitions have become ingrained in us.
We believe them totally.


We’re dealing with a collective belief system.


And like my friend Lori Shayew says, “We’ve bought into this belief.”


I’d like you to pay close attention to the following achievements of these autistic individuals.


1. Shashank is 22 and non vocal.
He uses gestures and simple signs to communicate.
He appears to have fine motor issues.
But he can put together 200/300 piece puzzles. He also makes lego designs with tiny pieces, which anyone would find difficult to hold.


2. Shayak can listen to the first couple of notes of a song and tell you what song it is. His dad observed him closely during a competition being aired on television. He was faster than every contestant, by more than a few seconds.
And he didn’t make a single error.


3. Mohit comes up with amazing artwork. His paintings are mesmerizing. He has taken part in a few art shows and sold some pieces too.
If you ask him to name a color, say purple. He may or may not name it.
But he knows the composition of the color purple.
Invariably, when he uses purple in his paintings, he also uses red and blue.


It’s happened hundreds of times, with several colors.


4. Vishal is an extra ordinary chef.
When he’s put on the spot to come up with dishes on his own, he racks his brain and prepares exotic stuff! And it’s finger licking good too!
I can assure you he hasn’t practiced them before.


Are these students (including my son, Mohit) high functioning or low functioning?
How does one measure the kind of intelligence they have?
We’re moving into unchartered terrain.


This video presents an empathetic view on different intelligences.





We’ve based IQ on one linear form of measurable intelligence. There are several others that we cannot even fathom.


children with autism have multiple intelligences



I follow a golden rule. When in doubt, check with an autistic individual.


How confusing are the labels of high- and low-functioning? I just want to trash them, to be honest. The main definition of function is “to work or operate in a proper or particular way.” Who decides what is proper? Is it not completely subjective? Am I less “functioning” because I happen to be autistic and have bipolar disorder? Am I only less “functioning” during an episode?
The verbal world can be exhausting to me. I burn out easily and need to sleep it off before I can handle any more. This is because, compared to the average person, I process other people’s words slowly. Does this make me “low-functioning”? I have an above average IQ, though — does that make me “high-functioning”? If there are times I prefer not to speak, does that make me “lower-functioning” because I’m not living up to someone else’s standard of what’s comfortable and acceptable?


– Jackie Parslow


Hard hitting words by Jackie.


Instead of high and low functioning, could we try the following?


1. Nurture each child
Each child is unique.
Our job is to make them feel valued and respected.
Acknowledge your child. Don’t make him feel he’s not good enough and he needs to be ‘somebody’ else.


When Mohit went to Seoul Academy School (more than 20 years ago), another classmate of his was on the Spectrum too. That child would read and write. He would use big words like ‘leprechaun’ in sentences!
Yes, I still remember!
Mohit’s shadow teacher once felt dejected and shared, “I wish Mohit could read and write – just like the other child.”


That stung.


Unfortunately, at that point of time I did not understand each child learned differently. It took me a few more years to get to that point.


Don’t compare your child with others. Cherish him for who he is. Understand how he learns.


What makes a child gifted and talented may not always be good grades in school, but a different way of looking at the world and learning,”


– Chuck Grassley


2. Customize programs


Because each child learns differently, we need to customize programs.
If a child cannot talk the conventional way, we should think of giving her a voice through augmentative communication.


If she cannot write, typing could be an option.


Carly’s typing showed them that there was a lot more going on inside her head than they had thought. For the first time she was able to communicate independently. After nine years of intensive therapy, and not much to show for it, Carly was finally emerging out of her silent, secret world.


Read Carly’s story here.


At SAI Connections, we work with our non vocal youngsters on typing and AAC.


3. Keep the big life goals in mind


At the end of the day what does each parent want?


At the cost of being repetitive, I’ll say it again.


a) meaningful friendships and relationships
b) independent living (as far as possible)
c) holding down a job or assisted employment


Keep your focus on these. This will help your child in the long run


4. Presume competence


Say this to yourself every day, “I believe in my child’s intelligence and competence.”


If you’re going to remember only 1 thing- remember this one.


Presume Competence. Believe in your child.


“The way we look at our children and their limitations is precisely the way they will feel about themselves. We set the examples, and they learn by taking our cue from us,”


– Amalia Starr


Dear Friend, I urge you to give up this high functioning/low functioning distinction.
It does not serve your child.
And it does not serve you.


Move into a more loving, accepting place.
Become your child’s guide and enable her to shine in her own unique brilliance.
Let’s become a loving, all encompassing community that truly treasures and nurtures each child.


Just as cherry, plum, peach and damson blossoms all possess their own unique qualities, each person is unique. We cannot become someone else. The important thing is that we live true to ourselves and cause the great flower of our lives to blossom.


– Dr Daisaku Ikeda


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