I worked in a school that had two self-contained special education classrooms. On paper, it was just Ms. A’s class and Ms. Z’s class, but everyone referred to it as the “high functioning room” and the “low functioning room.” Sometimes the students had instruction together or joined their peers in general education but, in general, the students of the low functioning group stayed in their room and the high functioning students had more chances to be included. The high functioning students sat with assistants and learned letters and numbers and the low functioning students watched the other students work. Maybe we’d stick a switch toy on their wheelchair tray. Yipee.
Why? Because it was The Way We Had Always Done It. You’ll be happy to hear it’s changed.
On the flip side, I had students who were “high functioning.” Teachers were very pleased to have high functioning students except when they didn’t do what the other kids were able to do, or in the same way. Every year, like an unspoken agreement, accommodations were slowly chipped away. “He’s high functioning,” we’d all say. “He doesn’t need a sensory break, or note taking support, or Augmentative Communication. He should be able to do that on his own by now, or else he’d be low functioning.”
“The difference between high-functioning autism and low-functioning is that high-functioning means your deficits are ignored, and low-functioning means your assets are ignored.” - Laura Tisoncik
Once I was asked to observe “Cory.” Cory was a youngster who enjoyed trampolines, letters, and car commercials. He needed constant supervision, plenty of breaks, and explicit directions and support for academics, leisure, and daily living skills. He frequently hit the person nearest him, although staff could not pinpoint as to why (no FBA completed). He had no way to independently communicate. It wasn’t that they hadn’t tried but what they had tried wasn’t working, so they stopped. He did have two little symbols taped to his workstation: “more” and “stop” that were used to direct his behavior.
His teacher met me at the door and gestured to where he was “working” (10+ minutes of redirection to sit in a chair with some math problems attempted in between). I asked what would be helpful to her as a result of our consultation.
“As you can see, we’ve tried everything,” she exclaimed, gesturing to her lone visual taped to the desk. “He’s just too low.”
It took me a while to pick apart why this particular visit weighed on my soul. I had been that person and I knew the ugly truth: as soon as we start saying students are “low” we’ve haven’t described the child, we’ve described our own limitations in believing in kids.
The terms “low functioning” and “high functioning” are not professional terms. They have no place in an educational report, school policy, or conversation. They are born from poor understanding, frustration, and/or a misplaced desire to categorize students by how high our expectations should be. Who gets to be high functioning? Who gets to be low? Did you mistakenly think (as I did) that researchers set an agreed-upon standard or that there was a test or some type of metric to determine what bin of functioning we all belong in? Perhaps there was a Harry Potter-esque Sorting Hat of Functioning?
"...‘high functioning autism’ is an inaccurate clinical descriptor when based solely on intelligence quotient demarcations and this term should be abandoned in research and clinical practice." (Alvares et al, 2019)
In absence of a Magic 8 Ball of Functioning, I challenge you to stop teaching “low functioning students,” erase the phrase from your vocabulary, and start wondering “what do we need to be successful?” Describe the supports your student needs, the skills they are working on, the behaviors and interests you’ve observed. What do you need to do differently? Tell me about your student, not the expectations people have formed. At PATINS we have not met, in our entire combined careers, students who were too anything to learn. There is always a way, and we can help.
What ever happened to Cory? I haven’t heard back from his team since then. It still makes me sad, because I know that as long as one of the most meaningful adults in his life thinks of him as “too low,” not much will change.
You will not regret ditching those words. Your students will remember you for it. You have nothing to lose but functioning labels.
They weren’t helping anyone, anyway.