Reclaiming the word “Autistic”

31 Mar

I have been in the autism advocacy long enough to know of many parents who freak out every time someone calls their child on the spectrum “autistic”. So as we approach World Autism Awareness Acceptance Day, I wanted to deep dive into the semantics of autism.

The United Nations recommends “person first” language (e.g., person with autism) where one’s humanity comes before their disability. This has met much dispute from self-advocates who argue that the “identity first” language (e.g., autistic person) is the mark of genuine acceptance and of a society that does not demonize an exceptionality that is part of who they are.

The word “autistic” has, in recent history, become an inaccurate insult — which can mean anything from unintelligent to ugly to selfish to myopic or shortsighted. This seems to be a phenomenon more prevalent in American English-speaking countries and is atypical, if not unheard of, in British English-leaning nations.

1Pangako

Four years after the Autism Society Philippines launched the 1Pangako campaign, there is a need to reiterate that “autistic” is an adjective that describes someone with an ASD diagnosis or traits characteristic to one with the condition. In this context, it is acceptable and accurate.

How can we explain to our children with deficits in grasping nuances of language that “having autism” is okay; but to be called “autistic” is an insult? This confusing position is a result of people themselves getting convinced that the word, made into a slur by the ignorant, is malicious.

It is a virtual minefield to maneuver around disability language. The most pragmatic approach is to ask the individuals or family members who live with autism how they want to be referred to. Better still, avoid the label.

Skipping the slur

Calling on autism mommies and daddies — I see the need to reclaim the word “autistic”.

Autism is associated with enviable qualities. To be autistic means to be focused on things one is passionate about. To be autistic means to have great memory. To be autistic means being able to pay attention to details. To be autistic means to be a loving child.

The word “autistic” need not be negative.

What does being autistic mean to you?

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