The absurdity of the high functioning label

Recently a guest, after observing Yirmiyahu (2 3/4 yr) for a while, asked, “So, is he high functioning?”

Should I proudly say, ‘yes’, as if he’s better than someone who doesn’t get this lucky label?

People are not machines or vegetables that are sorted according to quality and priced accordingly.  Inanimate objects can be rated with cold, measurable terms like ‘high functioning’ for the retail market but this is totally inappropriate for human beings.

I understand why people ask and it’s intended as a compliment.  They see Yirmiyahu doing well and use this term as confirmation of his abilities.  But Yirmiyahu is not high functioning.  He is not low functioning.

He’s a living, breathing person with his own unique strengths and abilities, as well as his own challenges.  Like every one of us.

Did you ever stop to think what in the world does it mean to be ‘high functioning’?  Who gets to determine what the standards are, to check off the abilities of a fellow human being on a paper grid?

Is childhood a competition between the haves and have-nots, between those who can and those who can’t?  Are we so arrogant as to think that because we or our children are blessed with certain abilities that it makes us better than those who have different abilities?

Defining success in life is individual.  Different people want different things and will need different strengths in order to have lives that are meaningful to them.  We have each been created with the abilities we need to fulfill our unique purpose in life.  We aren’t meant to be the same and we shouldn’t be rated as if we are.

The reality is that people with disabilities are being rated from the time they’re born.  They’re constantly being graded on a scale of performance that may or (more likely) may not be relevant to their individual lives.  That same scale will ignore any strengths that haven’t been determined by some official somewhere who doesn’t know the child or his life, and the child is then rated according to his functioning.

Fair?  No.  Accurate?  No.  Is someone better than someone else with a similar condition because he’s been labeled ‘high functioning’?  No.

So why do we use these ridiculous terms?

Are you wondering about how Yirmiyahu is doing?  He’s awesome.  He’s smart and communicative and he’s living life on his own timeline.  Sometimes that looks impressive and sometimes it looks like there’s a delay, but none of it means that he’s ‘functioning’ better or worse.

If you never thought about these terms until now, join the crowd!  I’ve thought a lot over the years about the importance of giving a child space to develop at his own pace and this has informed my approach to homeschooling and parenting.  But I didn’t question the usage of terms like ‘low functioning’ or ‘high functioning’ until I had a child with a different developmental curve; it was then that it became alarmingly clear to me that we limit and damage our children when we label them in this way.


5 thoughts on “The absurdity of the high functioning label

  1. I’ve been thinking about this. We used to have nevuah / prophecy / an intuition about G-d’s whole world (and the subjective experiences of all in it), and how to bring G-d into it (i.e. into them), that could enter into a person’s consciousness.

    We also had false prophecy.

    Then we had a sort of intermediate period where there is an intuition about others, but not that universal version of it. And “false intuition”, that leaves someone out or misunderstands.

    Now we have autism, a restriction of this same consciousness…? And we also have the Torah to tell us the aforementioned “how” that used to come so naturally.

    And the third ingredient, trust…

    Make sense?

    למלאת פגימת הלבנה, ולא יהיה בה שום מעוט

    *ויהי אור הלבנה כאור החמה*

    We each have our purpose. None of us is without some “disability”.

  2. Actually, it is damaging all around. The emphasis on measurability seriously impairs the ability to cultivate seeing and accepting the complexities, individuality and all the many colors, sounds, and various aspects of being human. It denies the mystery of being human. Of relationships. Including our relationship with ourselves.

    1. OH DEAR, I feel this may have been the wrong place to post what I said…Sorry! My mind was flying last night.

  3. (From a blog reader)>>Being that my sister has always been labeled high functioning I thought you might find my perspective as a sibling intetesting. So while I agree all terms that clasify people are silly, I think sometimes they can be beneficial. In this case high functioning vs low functioning. It tells both u, ur child and his siblings that on the spectrum of downs syndrome, some kids function at higher or lower levels and the for kids who find themselves “higher up” it comes with extra responsibility and expectations and can encourage them to push their perceived limits,and try harder. While those who are lower functioning can be “cut some slack” and its okay for the family and child to embrace the fact that they can’t compete with the higher functioning kids in certain areas. In my family we all collectivly helped my sister push herself to gain the muscle control needed to keep her tounge in her mouth. For some kids it’s really not a realistic battle. Using those labels can help family and friends know how much to push and when to be more understanding. It’s a very fine line and often times only the mom really knows where that line is. <<

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