Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

High Functioning Is an Insult, Too

Neurodiversity advocates often write about why it is insulting to use the term "low functioning" to describe an autistic person who does not speak fluently or who needs some assistance with daily activities. These characteristics do not necessarily reflect a person's overall intelligence or ability, and they certainly shouldn't be treated as a measure of a person's intrinsic worth. When "low functioning" is used on a blog or forum in the autistic community, someone usually will object to it.

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.

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24 Comments:

  • thanks - I'm so backed up at the moment I would have missed that one.

    I'm going to try and do likewise - substitute my 'own bias/ reference group' into what I'm attempting to write.
    Cheers

    By Blogger mcewen, at 9:56 PM  

  • This is a good idea. If high functioning autistics just tried to fit in as though they were normal, they wouldn't be confusing the issue. Then the public would understand that low functioning autistic people all need to be cured. And, they could go back to calling the high functioning ones nerds.

    By Blogger Fore Sam, at 11:44 PM  

  • I know some high-functioning sociopaths.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:25 AM  

  • Exactly, like that weirdo on Boston Legal named Lincoln who killed the judge with a shovel.

    By Blogger Fore Sam, at 4:48 AM  

  • McEwen: Yes, it's good advice for writing both scientific papers and blogs.

    Fore Sam: You've missed the point even more completely than usual. Have you ever tried doing any bias substitution on your own writing?

    By Blogger abfh, at 8:28 AM  

  • Agreed, and functioning levels are extremely silly. They're also potentially dangerous, regardless of the vertical position used. Laura Tisoncik probably said it best when she said "the difference between high-functioning and low-functioning is that high-functioning means your deficits are ignored, and low-functioning means your assets are ignored".

    By Blogger elmindreda, at 12:35 PM  

  • That quote from Laura Tisoncik is just so right on. I have it in my quotes file.

    Hi JBjr, how's the lad today?

    By Blogger Alyric, at 4:19 PM  

  • I don't use the term 'low functioning', but I do refer to the 'upper' and 'lower' ends of the autistic spectrum. My son is towards the lower end of the spectrum - to me, that gives an indication of his language development and his additional learning difficulties. I don't see that as being a judgement on his character and it says very little about the kind of complex person that he is.

    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4:45 PM  

  • I do use the term High Functioning Autism, but merely to differentiate diagnostic categories as referred to in e.g. Klin et al (2000) ie. someone with HFA has an IQ over 70 but with a higher performance IQ than verbal IQ, as against Asperger Syndrome, where verbal IQ would be higher. In other words, its a technical term. It implies no moral judgement.

    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4:50 PM  

  • ABFH; I could use "wackos" instead of "ND's" and I don't think the wackos would be offended. Is that what you mean by bias substitution?

    By Blogger Fore Sam, at 7:24 PM  

  • Julaybib: The main point of Gernsbacher's article is that language used in psychological science can be, and often is, rooted in biased assumptions even though it is intended to be neutral and technical and free of moral judgments. When biased assumptions become commonplace, many people don't even recognize them as biased, and research gets skewed by those assumptions. That's why it helps to examine the language from different perspectives.

    The biased assumption that underlies the use of functioning labels in autism is that conventional IQ tests accurately measure the intellectual abilities of autistic children. This is not true, as demonstrated by Mottron-Dawson (2005); IQ tests often are grossly inaccurate when used on autistics.

    Fore Sam: No, the way it works is that you're supposed to substitute your own group, like this:

    If high functioning old guys from New Hampshire just tried to fit in as though they were normal, they wouldn't be confusing the issue. Then the public would understand that low functioning old guys from New Hampshire all need to be cured.

    By Blogger abfh, at 8:36 PM  

  • ABFH; I think the low functioning old guys would be in favor of that.

    By Blogger Fore Sam, at 8:39 PM  

  • Hi~

    Thanks so much for sharing this post with us for inclusion in the upcoming Disability Carnival #5. Our plan is to have the carnival up on December 14th at www.planet-of-the-blind.com

    We look forward to seeing you there!

    By Anonymous Connie, at 9:56 PM  

  • Which kind of gamblers need curing: The high-functioning gamblers or the low-functioning ones?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:41 AM  

  • There are equivalents to "high functioning" in other minority communities. For example, Colin Powell and Barack Obama have been described as "well spoken". That's something you'll rarely hear about a white politician.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 10:23 AM  

  • What I find so oppressive about the functioning labels is that not only are they simplistic & not nearly descriptive enough to do justice to any living being, but that they can be self-fulfilling, dead-end designations that paint people into corners. My son is diagnosed with Aspergers, Tourettes, Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, & OCD. Some days he's functioning pretty darn fine & some days not so... which pretty much describes the life of any person. I have spoken to parents of self-described "low-functioning" autistic kids, whose descriptions of their children do not sound "low-functioning" to me... it's all in how you look at it, I think, & the language we use makes a huge difference in out outlook.

    By Blogger Lisa/Jedi, at 10:34 AM  

  • You know what annoys the crap out of me?

    Is that a lot of people outside the disability community really believe that all people who have autism are like Rainman (meaning they are savants).

    Over the years I've had a few people ask "what can he do?", when referring to my guy, as if he can perform parlor tricks to amaze and amuse them.

    I'm sure this has been discussed before, and I believe this stereotype is equally as offensive.

    Really great post, Abfh. Gives me a lot to think about!

    By Blogger Attila The Mom, at 10:59 PM  

  • found you on the disability blog carnival. great post! this old trick of substituting labels is one that we all would do well to practice on a regular basis.

    By Anonymous isabella mori, at 2:34 AM  

  • Thoughtful and insightful. Thanks.
    Janet

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:18 PM  

  • The substitution idea is a useful one - another to add to the mental toolkit.

    Fore Sam is getting increasingly amusing, though still in threatning way. Like that guy who tried to blow up Stormont and got stuck in the revolving doors.

    By Blogger M, at 11:06 AM  

  • I'm so tired of people referring to my son as "high functioning", then using that label to deny him much-needed services, assistance, and consideration. To add insult to injury, they term "low=functioning" often has the same problem! My kid can talk, yes. That doesn't mean he can ut on his own clothes or interact appropriately with his peers, thanks. He still needs shadow support to be successful in school- but he can't have one, because he's "high-functioning" You are absolutely correct- it is being used as a discriminatroy insult.

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 8:47 AM  

  • “ABFH; I could use "wackos" instead of "ND's" and I don't think the wackos would be offended. Is that what you mean by bias substitution?” – Fore Sam

    “Fore Sam: No, the way it works is that you're supposed to substitute your own group” --ABFH

    Um...didn't he though?

    By Blogger geosaru, at 3:00 AM  

  • Julaybib wrote:
    "I do use the term High Functioning Autism, but merely to differentiate diagnostic categories as referred to in e.g. Klin et al (2000) ie. someone with HFA has an IQ over 70 but with a higher performance IQ than verbal IQ, as against Asperger Syndrome, where verbal IQ would be higher. In other words, its a technical term. It implies no moral judgement"

    I was diagnosed Asperger Syndrome and my verbal IQ score was the lower one.

    By Blogger geosaru, at 10:44 PM  

  • Hey, that's a really good point. The substituting thing is amusing, too, but gets the point across. I wouldn't say "I'm a high-functioning person with a uterus," that would be stupid. So why "high-functioning autistic"? Thanks for your post.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:42 AM  

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