Talking about needs without dehumanising

[CN: Functioning labels]

I’ve written about functioning labels before. I would encourage anyone to follow the links contained in those posts because I’m not going to repeat them here.

My problem with functioning labels is that they they are harmful. People think they mean that some of us don’t need any support, while some of us are basically useless.

These labels are also incredibly ill-defined. If you speak to five different people, you will probably end up with five different definitions.

Then, inevitably, concern trolls will claim that without functioning labels, they wouldn’t be able to describe how to support and accommodate our needs.

How do the terms “low functioning”, “severe”, “high functioning” or “mild” actually describe what support an individual needs? What does it really mean when you use the term “low functioning”? Who are you comparing that individual to when you call them “low functioning” or “high functioning”?

Is it possible to describe someone’s support needs without dehumanising us?

I firmly believe that it is. I’ve written about reclaiming the dignity lost in diagnosis. I have also written about how I wouldn’t share my child’s worst day in order to get support because that support would not be the support he needs.

Some examples

But neither of those two posts address this question directly. So, I’m going to provide some examples. These are hypothetical examples because I do not intend to disrespect anyone’s privacy to discuss their specific support needs.

  • Example 1: John is a 9 year old autistic child who needs help getting dressed; Specifically, he needs someone to put on his shirts and shoes for him, but can be provided with verbal guidance to put on the rest of his clothes himself.
  • Example 2: Sally is a non-speaking Autistic adult. She communicates with others by using an app on her iPad. She needs support to ensure that her communication device is accessible to her at all times.
  • Example 3: Sarah is an autistic teenager. She responds best when people talk in shorter sentences and wait for her to respond without prompting.

All of those examples give specific ways in which an individual can be supported. None of those examples dehumanise a person by using words that basically compare the individual to NT people on a sliding scale of value.

One final point of clarification: All of those examples use the word autistic. When we say that we do not think that functioning labels are useful, we are not saying that all labels are useless. What we are saying is that there is a difference between labels that help and labels that hurt.