High Functioning Is an Insult, Too
The use of "high functioning" doesn't seem to draw as much objection in the autistic community, however. And frankly, I don't know why, because it's just as insulting.
Autism Diva just wrote a post that contains this excellent quote from an article by Professor Morton Ann Gernsbacher on bias in psychological science:
Maggio (1991) recommends that we test our writing for bias by substituting our own group for the group we are discussing. If we feel offended, then our writing is biased. I recommend that we test our interpretations for bias by peeling off the labels, as I’ve done here. If our interpretations make little sense, then our science is biased.
I'm going to apply both of these bias tests to the use of the term "high functioning" to describe autistics who have certain abilities or accomplishments. I'll start by substituting other groups:
"She is a high functioning woman; unlike most women, she can live independently."
"He is high functioning for a black man; he can keep a job."
I'd say this passes the offensiveness test. (To clarify, I don't mean to imply that there is necessarily anything wrong with people who have assisted living arrangements or who do not have a job, but I'm pretty sure that any minority group would be offended if someone were to suggest that this was the natural and inevitable condition of most of the group's members.)
Now I'll peel off the autism label and see whether we're left with anything that makes sense:
"He is a high functioning person."
Hmmm... what does that mean? Is he well educated? Rich? Popular? Imaginative? Healthy? Friendly? Intelligent? Optimistic? Hardworking? Full of kindness and charity toward all? Your guess is as good as mine.
This is what I have to say to those in our community who have been calling themselves "high functioning" autistics: Wise up. That phrase is not the least bit complimentary. All it does is reinforce ugly autism stereotypes. It's roughly the equivalent of saying "I'm smart for a woman" or "I'm successful for a (whatever your ethnic group is)." And what's more, it gives society a free pass to go on denying equal opportunity to autistics because it implies that your success didn't have anything to do with struggling to overcome unfair obstacles—no, it's just because you're naturally high functioning.
Don't be fooled.