Language for Autism
Disclaimer: the autistic community is a diverse collection of individuals – although I am #ActuallyAutistic and I believe the contents of this post are generally applicable, please give precedence to other individuals or groups where applicable.
As we approach World Autism Awareness Week I’m aware that some people aren’t sure what words they should use when talking about autistic people. In this post I’ll address a few common questions and explain why some language choices are preferred. I’ve written this post to supplement, not replace, the National Autistic Society’s guidance on how to talk and write about autism.
Neurodivergent / Neurotypical
Neurodivergent people are individuals who have neurological differences such as Autism, Dyslexia, or ADHD. Conversely, neurotypical people do not have these differences, although sometimes the term “neurotypical” is used to indicate the lack of a specific difference – for example, an autistic community may use “neurotypical” for a non-autistic person who may, however, may have other neurological differences. These differences may be detected through tests for things like verbal and non-verbal reasoning, information processing speed, and executive function, however these tests are not always conclusive.
Identity-first / Person-first Language
“Identity-first” language puts the condition first – “autistic people”. “Person-first” language puts the person first – “people with autism”. People who prefer person-first language generally do so because they consider their personhood more important then their condition, whereas people who prefer identity-first language generally do so because they view their autism as a core part of their person which they cannot separate or “remove”. Although both descriptions are valid, autistic people generally prefer identity-first language (i.e. “autistic people” not “people with autism”), however this can be a very individual choice. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has an excellent post explaining identity-first and person-first language in more detail.
Treatment / “Cures”
Autism is a permanent disability, not an illness that people “suffer” from.. There is no known “cure” and many autistic people see their autism as a core part of who they are, and therefore do not seek a “cure”. Autistic people won’t “grow out” of their autism, although as they get older they may become better at masking some of their traits to in order to fit into a generally unaccommodating world. When talking about supporting autistic people, think about “adjustments” or “accommodations” which neurotypical people (and society as a whole) can make, not “treatments” to “fix” the autistic person.
The National Autistic Society has a list containing examples of adjustments which may be suitable, however it’s usually best to ask the individual if any accommodations would be helpful.
It is not clear what causes autism – although it has a strong genetic basis, the genetics of autism are complex and environmental factors may play a role. However, we know that autism is not caused by:
- bad parenting
- vaccines, such as the MMR vaccine
- an infection you can spread to other people
- a lack of hugs
(source: NHS “What is Autism?”)
Autistic people find the suggestion that autism may be caused by the MMR vaccine (or vaccines in general) particularly offensive due to the implication that being autistic but immune to measles, mumps, and rubella is worse than being susceptable to one of the leading causes of vaccine-preventable death.
Historically, autistic people were described as “high functioning” and “low functioning”, however this over-simplifies the autistic spectrum. Rebecca Burgess’ comic “Understanding the Spectrum” is an excellent explanation, but in short the autistic spectrum is more complicated than a linear range and more like a spectrum of colours. Additionally, autistic people may struggle more or less on different occasions due to a variety of factors, such as how well they slept recently and what accommodations are offered to them. For the same reasons describing autism as “mild” or “severe” is often frowned upon – in most cases it is better to focus on the specific trait that is relevant (e.g. personally I would describe myself as relatively tolerant to sensory stimuli yet having poor fine motor skills).
Aspergers / Autism
Aspergers was the term historically used to describe “autistic people with average or above average intelligence”, however the term is no longer used – it was removed from Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013 and will be removed from the 2022 (11th) edition of the WHO’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. There are a variety of reasons for abolishing the term “Aspergers”, especially Hans Asperger’s problematic association wth Nazism.
Various symbols are used to represent autism and autism awareness. Perhaps the most common symbol is the puzzle piece, however a number of autistic people disapprove of this due to the suggestion that autistic people are “a puzzle to be solved” or “a puzzle missing a piece”. Another issue with the puzzle piece symbol is that it is used as the logo for Autism Speaks, a problematic autism advocacy group.
A better symbol to use when promoting autism awareness (and acceptance) is a golden infinity symbol (the chemical symbol for gold is Au, and the infinity symbol represents the infinite diversity among autistic people). Alternatively the rainbow infinity symbol can be used to represent general neurodiversity.
I hope this article will be useful in choosing the right words and expressions to use when talking about autistic people. If you’re not sure what terminology to use when talking about someone, please ask them! I welcome feedback via my contact form.