Let me start by saying I don’t really like functioning labels, though I do understand that the autism spectrum is extremely diverse and I can see the desire to try to order it a bit.
I’m someone who would most definitely be called high-functioning. I am verbal, able to live independently, I possess intelligence well-suited for an academic environment, etc. Normally, when someone brings up me being high-functioning, it’s to invalidate any severity of my autism. “But you don’t seem autistic! You must be very high-functioning.” I can only assume that not seeming autistic is intended to be a compliment, which hurts. And yes, I get that I am not as impacted as some on the autistic spectrum. That doesn’t mean someone else gets to determine what level I’m functioning at or what that means in terms of support. Functioning labels are expectations, and at least to me, having the expectation of being high-functioning can be a lot of pressure. High-functioning autism is being autistic, but not really being that autistic.
I tell myself I’m high-functioning sometimes. It’s a rebuke. When I feel like I’m barely able to function at all, I tell myself I’m supposed to be high-functioning. I drag myself out of bed, grab some manner of food, and trudge out the door because as a high-functioning autistic, I’m expected to need little or no assistance and manage to live a normal life. Most of the time I do okay. When I’m making it through everything I’m supposed to do and not struggling acutely, I don’t think of myself as high-functioning; I just think of myself as functioning, and I’m grateful for that, especially because I know it can shift ever so quickly.
Functioning is, of course, a standard that varies. My functioning isn’t always going to look like your version of functioning. Functioning labels are comparisons to what is perceived as normal and very often associated with verbal communication. And functioning fluctuates. Something as tiny as background noise or a change in my planned schedule can radically shift my functioning. Not to mention if I’m tired, or simply having a bad day. My functioning changes from day to day and place to place. Not to mention that it changes depending on what area of my life is being assessed. Point being, functioning is so fluid that attempting to label it is inherently incomplete and inaccurate.
As an autistic person, I don’t use a functioning label to describe myself. It’s something that non-autistic people do, presumably in an attempt to make sense of me. But if I really wanted to help someone understand me (which I do), I’d be more specific. I’d mention that I am good with words and verbal processing, though I can’t always access it during face-to-face interactions. I’d point out that excessive sensory processing is exhausting, if not entirely overwhelming. I might add that I have strengths and weaknesses like every other human being. And like anyone else, I cannot be completely encapsulated into a single label.