Support Needs vs Functioning Labels: How I talk about my strengths and struggles

It is well established in the autistic community that functioning labels are outdated and harmful in that they diminish a persons strengths (“low functioning”) and deny access to support for others (“high functioning”). For decades, functioning labels have been used to separate autistic voices from one another and invalidate many of us through the well known “not like my child” gambit.

Functioning labels, in my opinion, are problematic for two reasons. Firstly, they assume an unchanging field, treating functioning as if it were something that remains the same throughout life. My ability to function (as with all autistics) is constantly changing. Functioning can be wildly altered by environmental factors, and how many “spoons” we have left of a day. Functioning can change in the space of days, sometimes hours and minutes.

Secondly (and this is perhaps the most ableist part of functioning labels), is that at the core of them, functioning labels measure one thing, a persons economic value. Those deemed “high functioning” are more able to pass as neurotypical, there by having greater access to employment and the ability to pay taxes. Those deemed “low functioning” are typically less likely to access employment, meaning that they do not pay taxes and often require disability and welfare benefits to survive.

This second point is one of my personal pet peeves (to put it politely). It is an incredibly ableist measure to value economic value over the value of life itself.

Personally, I prefer to talk about myself in terms of support needs. This can change with me. I might wake up one day and feel that I have low support needs, able to plan and perform tasks on my own. On another day, or even later the same day, I may have higher support needs, requiring assistance to do things that some people would consider basic.

I like support needs because they make no assumption about my value to society. They shift and change, and can help me celebrate the positives, while asking for help with the more negative aspects of my disability. I can talk in terms of my general support needs, perhaps noting that on a normal day I require moderate support, while having the opportunity to ask for more in-depth support when I require it.

The important part of talking about support needs is to recognise that it is a moving target. No one person has the same support needs throughout their life. This is even true of neurotypicals. Does a neurotypical child have the same support needs as a neurotypical adult?

It is vital that we stop speaking about autistics in terms of fixed assumptions and economic value. Our lives have value beyond our ability to generate profit. We must cut out our own internalised ableism, and then help the rest of the world to do the same. One of the first steps for this, is to stop using the outdated model of functioning labels.

Celebrate your strengths, and never be afraid to ask for support with your struggles.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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