Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Autistic vs. With Autism
How is self-advocacy affecting the word "autistic" and perceptions of what autism is? I debated myself about posting this. However, it is part of the book draft I am preparing to release and I consider it an important discussion to have. I know someone won't like what I've written, but maybe it can get people thinking about language.
Autistic vs. with Autism
Self-identity is part of how we build relationships and connections. An important development over the last decade is the rise of self-described “autistic activists” as a community. However, this has also caused tension.
One of the many heated debates within autism communities is the proper term to use for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. I use a variety of constructs in this book. This isn’t part of an agenda. No matter which term I use, I realize someone will be offended. “Autistic” has the advantage of recognizing that autism is technically a descriptive label without an identified cause. We know that autistic traits are used for diagnoses, but we have yet to discover what causes autism.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with “autistic adult” or “adult with autism.” My autism diagnosis is like having blue eyes. I am both a “blue-eyed adult” and an “adult with blue eyes.”
“But autism is serious, not like eye color!” some might protest.
Okay, but that doesn’t tell me which linguistic construct is better. The deaf community hasn’t agreed on a preference either. Some deaf individuals would rather be called individuals with deafness. There are even cure vs. non-cure debates within the deaf community. Some argue deafness is merely a trait, one that can be changed in some cases, while others consider it inherently a part of their identity. In the deaf community, how you refer to yourself is affected by your position on medical treatments for hearing impairment. Let’s just agree that you can describe yourself as you prefer, as long as it is reasonably clear and accurate.
This lexical debate is trumped by a logomachy of serious importance to many advocates, activists, clinicians, and researchers. Should we use “autism” to describe everyone diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder? Some families of individuals with serious impairments insist “autism” or “autistic” should only be used when referring to classic autism. I understand this point of view, and sympathize with families who feel their needs are minimized by the inclusion of those, like myself, who are capable of independent living.
Further complicating the matter, some autistic activists are troubled by phrases like “severely impaired” or “low-functioning.” There is an entire academic discipline dedicated known as “Disability Studies” aligned with the “Rhetoric of Disability.” The debates about language and disability (including the word “disabled”) fill countless volumes.
I’ve come to accept that someone will be offended no matter what language I use. Sincerely, I do attempt to minimize the potential for conflicts by disclosing my background and stating, without hesitation, that the parents of individuals with classic autism do have unique concerns. I intend absolutely no offense by using the term “autism” as shorthand for the entire spectrum.