I was watching this video and it seems like it's deeply offensive to people in the autism spectrum to read someone use functional labels for autistic people.

Examples of functioning labels are "high-functioning", "Asperger's syndrome", etc.

Is this something that's actually the case? I see medical journals use it, so I am wondering just how offensive this is, and if highly successful authors in the mainstream literature still use it despite the offensiveness of the action.

  • 5
    Are you planning to write something and wondering whether to use these or not, or are you checking in here to confirm it's highly offensive? It doesn't feel like this is a problem you're having in your writing. Jan 8, 2023 at 17:32

3 Answers 3


Generally, I disagree with that video. There are situations where labels can be used without necessarily being discriminating.

Medical journals use different labels because they are part of the diagnosis, and depending on when the journal was written, terms like Aspbeger might exist even though it's all sorted under autism nowadays.

Personally, I sometimes find terms such as autism helpful to communicate, and sometimes I see them used to discriminate. It's more a question of a tool that can be used for many different things.

However, labeling people whether in fiction or real life always carries the risk of discrimination. What's the label for? To limit or reward someone because of a label? Then it's likely discriminating...

If it is to create a 2-dimensional secondary character, I suggest you refrain.

If you want to write about a person with autism you write them as any other character, as a person in a novel.

Maybe they tell the reader about their diagnosis, maybe their doctor talks about it, or their mom, maybe no one does. Maybe they don't even know they have autism...

If you go...

He was 5'9" and had autism...

You're telling and info dumping. This may or may not be discriminating, but is definitely bad writing.

You need to research autism, create a character, and show them in action. (This is true for everything you put in a novel and every type of character.)

I bet you can write a whole novel without a single label if you do that.

Then again, maybe the antagonist throws labels left and right because they are the antagonist?


I don't quite know if it's still used in modern literature. To some extent, it seems pointless to ask if something is considered "offensive". In medicine they need to make use of such functional labels to be more specific, i.e, whether it's offensive or not depends on the context and the person. Yes, there are some words that are generally considered offensive, but I don't think that's the case here. The question is, does this really need to be specified in the context of what you're writing? If so, do it.


Show, don't tell

This is just a specific case of the general rule to show, don't tell.

Describing your character as "autistic", "high functioning autistic", "schizophrenic", "bipolar" or anything similar does not tell me what they are like. Take a famous character such as Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. At no point is he specifically identified as autistic, but he is clearly intended to model many of the traits associated with what is commonly referred to as high-functioning autism. By showing, the writers are able to help us get to know who Sheldon really is and how his personality affects his behavior rather than slapping a low-effort label on him and letting everyone ASSuME that they know what that means. It makes him into a human being who quite likely happens to have autism in addition to having his own personality and goals rather than just another generic "autistic" character who exists only to have autism and do stereotypically autistic things all day.

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