Should I say “high functioning?”
Your new friend tells you they’re autistic. You wonder, should I tell them they’re high functioning? It would be intended as a bridge-builder (“I know something about autistic people!”) and a compliment. But it might not come across that way. It could fall into the realm of microaggression.
Here’s the thing: we say a lot of things that seem complimentary but actually imply parentheses. The prototype of this is telling a person of color they’re “articulate.” You mean, “You’re articulate for a black guy.” Even if you don’t, enough people have meant that to soil the comment. You should refrain from it. Also, you should get to know lots of people who aren’t like you, so you know that POC are not inarticulate, then you won’t be surprised into this comment.
“You’re pretty (for a heavy girl);” “You dance pretty good (for a disabled person);” and so forth. These are microaggressions, comments that by going against type imply type. “You’re high functioning,” comes with implied parentheses, too: “(for an autistic person).”
Do you want all your achievements and positive qualities to be parenthetical? Well, neither do I. I’m not high functioning for an autistic guy. I’m high functioning for a human. I have a doctorate, teach graduate classes, travel internationally, and don’t have credit card debt. I don’t resent the comment; in fact, I see the attempt at connection. But there are better ways to make those connections.
For example: Someone tells you they are autistic. Ask a question. Maybe, “Cool. So what do I need to know about you?” Connection made. You’re listening.
Beyond the microaggression, there’s another implication of “high functioning.” It implies everyone but your new friend is low functioning. The thing is, people with autism are hardly more likely to be low functioning than anyone else. You see the kids in programs to help with behavior problems, and you don’t see the people teaching college classes and doing your taxes and walking their dogs at the park. Plenty of non-autistic people have all sorts of problems holding down jobs or engaging in productive relationships. We all have our problems.
So hey, connection is good, and empathy is good. But these words are increasingly loaded and should be used with care in professional contexts.