September 29, 2023

Continuing my quest for precise and accurate language, I want to talk about the term “high functioning” – and why I’m not a fan of the most common alternative, “low support needs.”

“High functioning” is imprecise, because it can mean:

1. Support needs are lower. In this case, “low support needs” would be accurate – but this isn’t always the case. Many “high functioning” autistics need a lot of support, which brings me to the second option.

2. Support needs are less visible. In this case, the problems caused by a lack of support are more internal than external, such as anxiety or burnout. Masking falls into this category, but it’s not the only reason a need may remain hidden. Another possibility, faced by even the most authentically expressive autistics, is when a support need causes trouble for themselves but not for others around them.

3. Support needs are met. This is the best position to be in! If a person has high support needs but is well supported, their wellbeing and ability to follow their dreams may be higher than someone with lower support needs who is poorly supported.

Overall, I don’t mind the term “low support needs.” I just don’t like it as an automatic replacement for “high functioning,” when the needs may not be low at all.

And describing specific needs will always be more helpful than ranking them.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.