What do people mean when they say 'mild autism'? When is it classified as 'mild'? Because, I can't dress myself or feed myself, or do a lot of other 'basic' tasks but people keep telling me I must be really 'mild'. Is it because I can speak? Is it because I'm funny? Is it because they're assholes?
That last one sounds about right.
“Mild” autism, like “high-functioning” autism is an expression of ignorance and at times straight up hatred. It’s an allistic classification of us based on what they assume we’re capable of, and has nothing to do with the realities we face in our day-to-day lives. And sadly, it’s used against us by many of our so-called “allies,” by people like Autism Moms (*gag*) and just assholes who want to dismiss us.
Some people may come across more high-functioning in your average social situation, but have other struggles. Some may function fairly highly across the board. Some may be able to make their own phone calls but be pretty much unable to speak to someone face-to-face. We’re all different, and we all have our areas where we’re strong, areas where we’re weak, and areas where we succeed sometimes but not all times. “Mild autism” is a completely meaningless term.
It may be that some of these people are trying to compliment you (I don’t know the exact circumstances you’re hearing this in). But even so, that’s patronizing, ignorant and offensive. And worse, these distinctions have been divisive for autistics in general. It pits us against each other, both by encouraging some of us to believe that we’re better than others, and by telling us we should shut up because we don’t have it as bad as others. No matter someone’s intentions, using the term “mild autism” is just wrong.
tl;dr version: If someone uses the term “mild autism,” this can be translated as “I don’t actually know the first thing about how autism really works.”