The UK magazine SOCIAL WORK NEWS Social Work News has invited author Kathy Carter, whose new book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is shortly being published by Sirenia Books, to contribute two articles aimed at social workers; the first, concerning autism labels and language. Here is a small snippet of the article (edited), to whet readers’ appetite –

Autism is now widely thought to be a lifelong difference in neurological processing. It features (at varying levels, as it is a spectrum), key differences in areas of: social communication and interaction; restricted or repetitive behaviours, and sensory challenges. Diagnostically, both the current draft of the ICD-11 and the DSM-5 advocate the diagnostic term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, outside of diagnostic circles and in everyday parlance, ‘autism’ is generally a preferred term, from an autistic individual’s perspective.

Continued use of the term ‘ASD’ when liaising with autistic individuals and their families emphasises the ‘deficit’ model. Simply using the word ‘autism’ instead of ASD emphasises the strengths-based approach, recognising autism’s differences, without repeating the word (or inference of) ‘disorder’, which many autistic people dislike.

Functioning labels
Next, let’s consider ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’. These functioning labels are still in the autism vernacular, where some educators (and professionals in the local authority and healthcare services) are concerned. Traditionally, someone with an Asperger Syndrome-type autism diagnosis may be described as being high functioning, while someone non-verbal or with intellectual disabilities may be described as low functioning.

Now, an autistic individual is more appropriately described as having high or low support needs.

Autism from A to Z book - review coverAnyone advocating for autistic people could find that the aforementioned functioning labels present a problem; the ‘lower functioning’ autistic individual could feel inferior.

They may have additional learning, communication or processing challenges; however, a named degree of functioning is really a perceived position of functionality in the environment, rather than autistic functionality.

Many autistic individuals previously deemed as ‘low functioning’ (who may communicate in different, non-verbal ways), who have created great works of creativity, from art to literature; far from low functioning! Furthermore, the struggles and challenges of a supposed ‘high functioning’ autistic individual are not necessarily recognised using these terms.

It is often the co-existing conditions that the autistic individual may or may not have, alongside their autism, that affect support needs.

Look out for the spring 2020 issue of Social Work News to read more!