The opposite of high

The opposite of “high” is “low,” correct?

So when a parent says their child is “high-functioning,” they’re saying other children are “low-functioning.” Even if they don’t think that’s what they’re saying, that’s precisely what they’re saying.

But what even determines high-functioning vs. low? Having a savant-like skill? Verbal acuity? Passing as “normal”?

My sense is that it’s that last one, that the term “high-functioning” is used by parents who feel their kids are close to “normal.” Their kids can pass. Maybe it gives these parents some comfort to use that label. I guess so, since I see it used out of context all the time. For example, some parents sign their emails, “Parent to Billy, high-functioning autism.” Ugh.

Like some others, I felt that the DSM-V’s elimination of the sub-types Aspergers, PDD-NOS, ASD, etc. was, in some regards, problematic. In certain situations, these labels help add context; they are useful in understanding the strengths and challenges one might face.

The APA must have realized this problem, because the latest iteration includes levels of severity for ASD, from Level 1 to Level 3. These, however, are clinical distinctions, helpful in some situations but not in general conversation.

Which leads me to this: maybe all these labels are just problematic to begin with. Maybe the term “autistic” is sufficient. Or maybe even that’s too much, I don’t know.

So how about this? If you do feel the need to help someone understand what’s going on, maybe just talk about the specific issues, and leave the labels at the door.


  1. “If you do feel the need to help someone understand what’s going on, maybe just talk about the specific issues, and leave the labels at the door.” YES! in this and so many other contexts.

  2. You know, I’ve read a couple of your posts as well as your visual explanation, and it seems that you have something against those autistic people who fall into the Asperger’s category. That really bothers me considering that I have both a child and a significant other with Asperger’s syndrome. As someone who loves someone with autism, I think we can both agree that we don’t want anyone looking down on our loved ones for having autism. However, it’s not ok to single out one group of that spectrum and pick on them. Yes, the psychological field chooses to call these people “high functioning”, and thus that wording is ingrained in our minds. Both of my loves have very high IQs. Oops, did I used the word “high”? That doesn’t mean that your child has a low IQ. It just means that my loves ranked high. My loves do rank low on the social skills scale thus placing them onto the autism spectrum. If you have an issue with them being grouped along side your child, it might be better that you examine your own heart rather than choosing to single out the wonderful people who have been given the Asperger’s label. These are wonderful people just as I’m sure your child is. Now, please get off of our backs and try supporting us as you wish to have others of the spectrum supported. Thank you.

    • First, to be honest, I’m baffled by why you might think I have anything against people with Aspergers or their parents. You couldn’t be more incorrect. In fact, in many ways my own son meets the criteria for Aspergers. Many of our closest friends and their kids fall into this category.

      Further I actually think the removal of the Aspergers definition from the DSM is problematic and have said so quite publicly. It is a useful way to distinguish the various types of autism. The point of my diagram was to more accurately show the scope and manifestation of the so-called spectrum.

      Many of the parents who’ve reached out to support my post, “The opposite of high,” are aspie parents as well as some people with Aspergers! But the point was that the label “high functioning” is problematic. My son, for example, was reading and memorizing books at 3, knew the prime numbers at 5, and is now doing math several years ahead of his age. Yet his social and behavioral issues would qualify him as “low functioning” by those who insist on the “high functioning” label, and his required educational supports might imply that he’s “low functioning,” but he’s anything but.

      If there are other ways you think I’ve insulted those with Aspergers on my blog, other than that post, I’d be happy to learn and grow from it because that is certainly not my intent. But as it stands, I think you’re mis-reading that post and my intent.

      Some of the most supportive notes I’ve gotten have been from teens and adults with Aspergers who have said my posts and the diagram in particular were very helpful to them. In fact, I’m now collaborating with one young man who has Aspergers who found the diagram incredibly helpful and who wants to help as I continue work on it.

      What’s interesting is yours is the only negative note I’ve gotten from an Aspergers parent. The only other negative email I ever received was from a parent who thought my child “was not severe enough” to warrant a conversation! Talk about a spectrum!

      You asked me to look in my heart. I would ask you to do the same. Did you really consider my intentions and my words, or are you leaping to conclusions (and sending angry notes) because of your own defensiveness?

      If you still think you’re right and are convinced I really feel that way, there’s not much I can do to help. But I will tell you that if you insist on calling your child high functioning to other parents, you will alienate some of them. If you’re okay with that, it’s your heart that requires introspection.

      And by the way, many of those you offend will also be aspie parents. I know. They’ve told me how that term bothers them.

      • I initially didn’t post “Asperger’s Mom’s” reply because I thought I’d respond to her personally. But after her response, pasted below, I decided to go ahead and post it, plus my emailed response. In addition, here is her response to me:

        “Actually, I don’t believe that I’m the only negative reply you’ve gotten. I believe that you’re too afraid to let those replies through just as you refuse to let mine. But, that is for you to bear and not me. I’m sorry that you fear people with Aspergers and insist that those who are labeled as high functioning are below you, but again, that’s your deal and not mine.”

  3. asperger’s mom, your perception and conclusion of the original post being an attack and some declaration ASD Dad’s superiority is ludicrous, as is evident by you stating the you know what is in his heart. I agree with ASD Dad in that I learned that my son is a person with character traits and hobbies and favorite foods and hobbies and clumsy ways and proficient use of computers. High or low functioning will not describe the person he is. That’s the point of the post. Not to knock anybody else down. And to know what’s inside somebody’s heart will require an inquiry far more involved than reading a blog. Something I’m sure you will expect of those trying to get to know your child and partner.

  4. I loved this post. I know so many parents who preach acceptance but cannot help to use the term “high functioning Asperger’s” or “high functioning Autism” Instead of just Asperger’s or Autism. It’s like a disclaimer.
    You’ll always hear it more during those first years of diagnosis when parents are struggling with acceptance issues.

    Again and again people seem perplexed about our son if they hear him say something “smart” and then hear me say that actually he’s not “high functioning” Even within our our Dept. of Ed there aren’t really programs for kids with “classic Autism” who also have high IQs AND need other extensive support. Why? because the preconception and stereotype is if you are smart you must be all over ‘high functioning.’

    And then there is the whole value judgement issue.

    I have a sister with autism who is an adult, not considered “high functioning” in any way. As she’s grown, I’ve witnessed the ways society and communities have undervalued and ignored her. She has no special gift, no party tricks with math. She’s just a kind human being with few friends and a longing to connect.

    I loved this post.