The Autism Spectrum is Not Binary

The autism spectrum is more than a simple scale from lower to higher functioning.

We are beginning to recognize that gender is a social construct, that gender fluid people exist, and that gender is not as binary as we thought it was. Well, autism is not binary, either. When most people think of the autism spectrum, they may think of autism as a linear sliding scale from low functioning to high functioning, or mild autism to severe autism. Professionals have often diagnosed autistic people with functioning labels, such as giving a diagnosis of “high functioning” autism (or Aspergers) for autistic people who were typically verbal, more skilled at recognizing emotions in others and responding in socially appropriate ways, or who socially camouflaged or masked their autistic behaviors in public, and giving a diagnosis of “low functioning” autism or “severe autism” for autistic people who were nonverbal or semi-verbal, who stimmed more frequently and had more visible stims such as hand flapping, and who had more difficulties in recognizing emotions in others and responding in ways that are socially acceptable. Now, the DSM-5 changes in diagnosing autism removed functioning labels and the Aspergers diagnosis under a singular autism diagnosis, ranging from level one, or requiring support (what was formerly “high functioning” autism) to level three, or requiring substantial support (what was formerly “low functioning” autism).

To think of the autism spectrum ranging from low to high functioning would be over-simplifying autism. Autistic people have various needs and ranges of ability in executive functioning, verbal and nonverbal communication, motor skills, sensory sensitivity, perception, and social interaction. Someone who is believed to be “mildly” autistic and is verbal and social around others may have more difficulty in executive functioning and have sensory sensitivities of light, sound, and taste. Someone who is nonverbal or was diagnosed with “severe” autism may be able to express themselves through alternative means of communication, such as by using an AAC device, sign language, or writing down their thoughts. To assign someone a label of “low functioning” or “high functioning” autism would be to either undermine autistic people who are not “autistic enough” to receive services and accommodations for their needs, or to assume that autistic people who don’t socially mask around others or who don’t communicate verbally are “too autistic” to be competent or intelligent.

Functioning labels also contribute to division in the autism community. Those who have been previously diagnosed with Aspergers or “high functioning” autism may view themselves as superior to those diagnosed with “low functioning” or “severe” autism. They may not want to be associated with autistic people who are more “embarrassing” and stim more often or have more difficulties in social interaction. They may be more afraid of the social stigma of autism, and are more likely to internalize ableism and socially mask around others, which can cause psychological and emotional harm. Functioning labels also contribute to parents of autistic children or adolescents dismissing and invalidating autistic people by saying, “This is not what real autism looks like. You’re able to communicate with others, and my child can’t. You must not be autistic.”

While it is true that some autistic people may require more support than others, all autistic people have their own talents, strengths, and challenges. Autism is not binary, and there is no such thing as “severe” autism or “mild” autism. For neurotypical parents of autistic children, instead of saying, “My child is severely autistic,” or, “My child is high functioning,” say what your child’s needs are, such as, “My child is autistic and has communication and sensory needs.” “My child is autistic and has difficulty in executive functioning, but does well with social interaction.” “My child is autistic and needs help with social and motor skills.” By recognizing what autistic people’s needs are, we can better work to accommodate and break down barriers for autistic people. And by seeing that the autism spectrum is not binary, our perceptions about autistic people won’t be so binary, either.

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5 thoughts on “The Autism Spectrum is Not Binary

  1. FYI, the most accurate term is ^not^ ‘non-verbal’. I once knew a lass who could only say one perseverative phrase, but was highly verbal when communicating through TTS. The more accurate term is ‘non-speaking’.

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