So how would one differentiate between autistic people who are more "severe" than others? I don't mean to say that they have any less of a right to live than anyone else. But there is obviously a spectrum. How do you do you describe people as being closer to one side of the spectrum or the other? I'm not trying to be offensive or dehumanizing, I'm just wondering..
The autism spectrum really isn’t a better-to-worse spectrum; think of it more like this sort of spectrum:
(Taken from this post, which is itself a great explanation of autism.)
None of us are “more autistic” or “less autistic” than each other, but we do have more of an issue or less of an issue with the above subjects. Some autistics are nonverbal, while others have very little problem with language. Pretty much all autistics have sensory issues, but they can be wildly different sensory issues, and therefore cause different levels of difficulty making it through everyday life.
The issue really isn’t severe versus mild, it’s which traits make it easier or harder to pass as neurotypical. There are a ton of traits that aren’t as glaringly noticeable as being nonverbal or having a meltdown over being touched, and many autistics have spent their whole lives learning to suppress themselves and learning how to ‘script’, to mimic allistic behavior so that we don’t stick out as abnormal. Some traits can be suppressed or mitigated (at least for a while), others can’t, but being able to blend in better doesn’t mean your brain isn’t autistic.
So generally, you might say something like “[person] is an autistic who is nonverbal” or “[person] is an autistic who has difficulty with their motor skills” or “[person]’s autism causes such a sensitivity to sound that loud noises cause them severe pain” or “[person] is autistic and needs help remembering to eat”, and so on.
We’re all autistic, but the nature of our specific struggles differ, so it’s better to describe a person’s specific issues without making it about “more” or “less” autism. It’s okay to say something general like, “[person] requires a lot of assistance because of their autism” or “[person] has special needs because of their autism”, but try to make it simply a fact, rather than a label that carries some judgment to it, like ‘low-functioning’.
And at the same time, if you know an autistic who would be deemed ‘high-functioning’, don’t assume that they aren’t struggling just because you can’t easily see it, or expect them to behave “normally” because they’re “not *that* autistic”. They’re having trouble with something, they’re just trying to hide it. Give them room to be different and need help.
Hopefully that all makes sense and you can get what I mean. Thanks for wanting to understand!