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Term of the Week - High-Functioning, What Does It Really Mean?

By January 24, 2009

This weeks term of the week is actually a bit of a cheat, as I was unable to find a concise definition of what "high-functioning" actually means in Down syndrome.

I have heard the term high-functioning used to describe individuals with many different disorders - autism, dyslexia and Down syndrome to name a few. In the interest of getting of clearer picture of what exactly this term means in individuals with Down syndrome, I attempted to locate a clear-cut definition of what this term means. While this phrase is commonly used to describe some individuals with Down syndrome, I was surprised that there is no formal medical, psychological or other criteria defining exactly what makes a person high-functioning. I was also surprised (although I shouldn't have been) to find that some parents object to this term.

In it's common usage, high-functioning refers to someone that is performing above what would be expected of them. Thus the term is actually a comparative term and rather subjective (or based on someone's opinion). It can also be a somewhat simplistic term in that it tends to have an "all or none" connotation - that is a person is either high-functioning or not. In reality, most people (with and without Down syndrome) have a mix of skills and abilities and may be high-functioning in certain areas and not in others.

Some parents of children with Down syndrome (and parents of children with autism) object to the term because they feel that it is far too subjective and often is actually a reflection of society's poor expectations of people with Down syndrome rather than a reflection of the individual's true abilities. Other parents object to the term because it places more value on individuals thought to be high-functioning as compared to individuals that are not thought to be high-functioning.

How do you feel about the term "high-functioning?" Is the term meaningful to you? Would it be more meaningful if there were actual criteria and definitions assigned to the term or am I over thinking this? Let me know what you think!

February 4, 2009 at 4:23 pm
(1) Ecki says:

I hate that term, partly because my daughter is not. What does that make her? “Low” – functioning? Blech. And my biggest beef with everyone highlighting how “high-functioning” people with Down syndrome (or any other disability) can be, well don’t the rest also have value? My daughter has as much value as the next person, no matter her level of functioning.

July 10, 2009 at 12:44 pm
(2) Christina Robirds says:

I would like to see actual difinitons and actual criteria. I am a grandmother of a beautiful baby girl (four days old) this is all new to all of us and the more information and definitions availavble. the better to understand what to expect in order to work with our baby

July 17, 2009 at 12:05 am
(3) downsyndrome says:

Congratulations on your new granddaughter! I hope you are all doing well! For now, you might want to just enjoy your newborn granddaughter – the newborn period goes so fast! I highly recommend that you pick up two books if you can:
Gifts – http://giftsds.segullah.org/
Babies with Down Syndrome: A New Parents Guide (be sure and get the second edition.

The first book is inspirational and the second is informational. Between the two, they should answer your questions and provide you with some reassurance and hope!

Once again – Congratulations to you and your family.



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