The Thing About Mild and Severe Autism (LONG POST)
Before you begin reading, here is some vocabulary to understand what I will talk about:
LSN = low support needs
MSN = medium support needs
HSN = high support needs
AAC = Augmentative & Alternative Communications
ADLs = activities of daily living
iADLs = independent activities of daily living (driving, cooking, finances, etc)
bADLs = basic activities of daily living (personal hygiene, bathroom, hydration, etc)
I’ve been seeing a lot of discussions about whether or not we should bring back “mild” or “severe” autism labels.
First off: it’s important to recognize that every autistic is different. I mean “different” in the sense that many autistics struggle with iADLs, bADLs, interpersonal communication, and executive functioning at various degrees.
While I appreciate that LSN autistics’ experiences have been getting validated over the last few years, it’s created a steamrolling effect. In my opinion, there’s starting to be a widespread idea of demedicalizing autism and treating it like a quirky TikTok personality. And honestly….it’s pretty sickening to see. Autism is not just being “quirky” or “a little stimmy”. Autism is a real disability that affects many individuals, and it’s not because of capitalism. Aspie supremacy — the idea that LSN autistics somehow have more worth than MSN or HSN autistics — is extremely harmful. It’s time we move on from that, and we should’ve done it a long time ago.
But dividing the spectrum into mild/high-functioning and severe/low-functioning is inherently going to cause more problems.
One of my dear friends — I’ll call her Jaz for her privacy — is autistic, and she is considered high support needs. Jaz has a professional aide to help her with iADLs and bADLs. She relies on AAC and echolalia to communicate. But Jaz loves people. She especially loves pop culture and knows more about the Kardashians than I do. She watches lots of reality TV and constantly repeats phrases about finances that she heard from Shark Tank. She is hyper-expressive and stims aggressively when she is really enjoying a conversation. Jaz makes lots of raunchy jokes as well. She’s funny, witty, and sociable.
And then there’s me: Purell. I’m also autistic, and I consider myself low-medium support needs. I use AAC when I’m in a shutdown, which happens frequently. I have horrible sensory processing issues, which warrants a constant use of my noise canceling headphones. Even though I have adequate social awareness, I hate talking to people. I have poor understanding of pop culture and trendy slang. I have struggled with bADLs for my whole life and nowadays, due to finally recovering from mental illness, I can mostly complete bADLs without an aide. While I can order food for myself and travel safely across locations, I often spiral into anxiety attacks that impair my spatial reasoning.
Autism is not a spectrum of intensity, but support needs is. Jaz has an entirely different impact from her autism than I do, but both of our autistic experiences are equally valid. However, we do not have equal/similar support needs. I currently need extensive support for interpersonal communication, iADLs, and motor skills. Meanwhile, Jaz needs extensive support for emotional regulation and bADLs. Does Jaz face more adversity than I do in terms of navigating a neurotypical world? Absolutely, because I am nowhere near as disabled as she is. At the end of the day, dividing autistics into two vague categories does not accurately describe our experiences and what kinds of services we need.
Now, if you’re autistic and you want to describe yourself as mild/high-functioning or severe/low-functioning, by all means you’re welcome to. In fact, Jaz herself does not mind being called severely autistic or high support needs; it’s not my place to question or correct her own terminology. As for me, I do not fit the widely-known descriptions of either high-functioning and low-functioning, so I describe myself as low-medium support needs. And that’s my own decision!
We are all going to have different opinions on this topic. That’s okay. All autistics have unique experiences. But we need to stop highlighting only the palatable parts of the autistic community.
TL;DR I’m not exactly saying that severe or mild autism aren’t real. It’s the fact that people make assumptions about competence based on generic terms that describe a broad range of people within a community and disability. It’s also the fact that multiple LSN autistics subscribe to the concept of aspie supremacy; I’ve seen numerous LSN autistics claim that HSN autistics are stereotypes or myths. A human being is not a myth. LSN autistics have to accept that we hold more privilege over high support needs autistics. We need to be open to discussions and debates; we cannot leave anyone behind. We need to educate misinformed parents, educators, and even other autistics. We are all fighting against ableist systems together. Let’s not fight one another.
me discovering a new hyperfixation: this is it. This Is The One. there isnt anything on this goddamn planet that could overpower my Love for this Thing. what i'm feeling is an all consuming, overwhelming, incredibly overpowering Happiness, an immovable force within me. I will never stop tal
me, like two weeks later: i literally do not feel an ounce of human emotion about this Thing. i am an empty void, numb and dark. i have only known happiness once. and never will i feel it again.