Low and High Functioning are very common terminologies that are utilized in determining levels of autism. Usually, their use is based on the subjectivity of the observer (whether parent, doctor or teacher) and do not have a precise measure of intelligence or mental capacity.
With recent studies and updates on DSM-5 or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) 5, autism is generally categorized as Autism Spectrum Disorder and is segregated into three levels. The terms High and Low Functioning persist though as these are more colloquial terms, but it must be emphasized that these terms are outdated and don’t accurately describe a person diagnosed with autism, or simply ASD.
The following are some points to consider when it comes to the subject of high and low functioning autism:
- Both have no prevailing measures for intelligence, talent, anxiety, aggression, or sensory challenges levels.
- Both are non-descriptive of a person’s performance in school as intelligence is just one measure of educational acuity.
- Both are non-descriptive of the capability to function in a public setting.
- Both provide no measure for success in job capability and performance.
- Both have no means to identify aggression as it is present in autism of all levels.
Perception Versus What Is Normal
High and Low Functioning Autism are terms used by observers to categorize the behavior of people with autism against what is perceived as “normal.”
A person is coined as “High Functioning,” for example, when they can use speech and language to communicate, can perform in a standard academic setting or can engage better in social situations. According to Dr. Katherine K.M. Stavropoulos, “In terms of intelligence quotient (IQ), that usually means greater than or equal to 70 (average IQ is 100, with a standard deviation of 15).” Low Functioning, on the other hand, is used to describe those who look or sound distinctly different; those need special education or who are visibly socially separate.
These distinctions, however, are superficial and subjective. There are gray areas within the behavior of people with autism that blur common perceptions of high or low functioning; like how a perceived low functioning autism person that’s socially withdrawn can converse normally online or a high functioning autism person needing special education due to learning challenges.
While it is convenient to categorize the behavior of people with autism to manage public perception, these labels are not reflective on one’s performance in a social, academic or professional setting and shouldn’t be used as a measure for that either. The bottom line is, using these terms are misleading and not faithful in determining where autism lies on the spectrum.
The Three Levels Of Autism
Dr. Edward Shorter said, “The classification of autism has been a mishmash. The very real disorder started out in the 1920s as children who refused to play with others and were indifferent to parental affection. All this was described much earlier than Leo Kanner’s work at Johns Hopkins University in the 1940s.” Looking at the DSM-5 now, the three levels of Autism are as follows:
Level 1 – Requiring Support: People with Autism under this level shows difficulty in flexibility, have poor organizing skills, switch between activities (and not finishing them), have problems making friends, and communicating, and more.
Level 2 – Requiring Substantial Support: People with Autism under this level shows severe difficulty in social communication skills, both verbally and nonverbally, with repetitive behaviors that are post-normal, and other signs.
Level 3 – Requiring Very Substantial Support: People with Autism under this level shows extreme issues with social skills, cannot talk as much, odd behavior, and displays basic needs only.
As Dr. Jason Whiting said, “In recent years, the controversies of an autism epidemic have died down as evidence continues to accumulate that the condition is rooted in genetic and neurological processes. It is now generally argued that research on awareness and support is preferable to seeking dubious causes and cures.” Still, for a better reading, it’s recommended to use the DSM-5 as it contains a more contextual basis on the three levels of autism and everything about it.