This is going to be a short post; I've written a more extensive article for the Autism Women's Network on this that I need to just finish editing before it goes up.
Most to the time when I come across the terms high-functioning and low-functioning, they are used as descriptors for Autistic people, whether well-meaning or as a way to dismiss Autistic opinion. However, at the time of writing this, the last time I had it directed towards myself directly was in a conversation just a few days ago at a store I go to on a weekly basis. For context, the staff at this store know I am Autistic, ADHD and some of my various other disabilities. They also know that quite a few other regulars also are on the spectrum and have disabilities.
I was talking with one staff member and the topic of disability came up, Autism amongst my family members in particular, and how some of them aren't diagnosed even though we're pretty sure they're on the spectrum, with some comparison to my own rather belated need for a diagnosis. In response, the staff member replied "well, you're pretty high-functioning yourself, right?"
Knowing that she didn't know how quite loaded that term is for me, and she didn't mean to step into the "but you don't look disabled" fallacy, I attempted to explain it's not a constant state (I don't know about how well I came across; i had a migraine and had just worked a 7-hour retail shift, was hanging on with the last of my batteries and my last remaining spoons). As I did so, I came to understand something, what people really mean by high- and low-functioning.
It's not about vocal skills or IQ scores, as I've seen proposed in the Autism communities, or frequency of symptoms and self-harming behaviour, as defined by the Global Assessment of Functionality. It's about visibility.
Think about it; that's what really is meant when people label functioning status to disabled people, the level in which the disability is visible to other non-disabled people. A person like myself, whose disabilities are largely invisible due to the nature of my disabilities themselves and the work I put into surviving outside my safe space, is more likely to be automatically considered "high-functioning". This is because unless I let people in and show others my private life, my daily struggles, the moments where I'm not working on "passing", people have no idea how much that label is inconsistent with my actual reality and a lot of times, a lie. In the paraphrased words of a few of my friends "it wasn't until I lived with you that I fully understood the impact and implications of what you told me what your life is like; until then, I thought I knew, but I didn't."
Autism is already an invisible disability, being that by clinical definition, it is a developmental disorder, a mental disability, not a physical disability. This means that unless we are very visibly Autistic, most people have no idea that we're disabled. Someone who is highly visible as being Autistic is more likely to be considered "low-functioning", and treated with all the stigma that entails, due to sheer ignorance. There is, of course, problems with both scenarios, based on assumptions made about disabilities in general and functioning labels on specific.
As part of the Autism and Disability rights movements, I think we should be correcting the terms. Let's call out the fallacies in functioning labeling, and call it what those descriptors really mean, highly-visible and highly-invisible disabilities. This way, not only are we rejecting the assumptions made about us, but we're also confronting ableist attitudes hidden in the words used to describe us. It makes clear that what they're using to divide and label us is false and superficial and makes it uncomfortably clear on what they really mean. Maybe then we can change more minds on how they treat us.
Edit: Of course, there are problems with the terms highly-visible and highly-invisible, in that there are also times when someone is more visibly disabled than others. This certainly isn't going to be the ending solution to the problems with high-/low-functioning labels. However, I think it's a step towards confronting non-disabled people on what exactly they mean by those labels and the underlying attitudes that are expressed. It's a step towards addressing the ableism behind it, so that we can work on descriptors that are more accurate and are still respectful of every disabled and Autistic person.