When talking about my son, I will variously refer to him as “autistic” or that he is a child “with autism.” My choice at any point in time depends on what makes the sentence flow better, and provides the clearest meaning. However, for a significant number of people, their choice between the terms reflects what they think of as a more enlightened perspective and awareness of autism, than people who choose the other option. But which one is “more enlightened”, and why? It’s not nearly as straightforward as some claim.
Such terminology choices supposedly reflect attitudes and beliefs about autism. Specifically: whether autism is one trait of many in an individual, or central to their identity; whether its existence is permanent or transitory; and whether autism is something horrible or beautiful. Furthermore, is the relevant attitude towards autism that is supposedly reflected in the chosen words, a reflection of the views of the person using the word, or a reflection of society’s attitudes towards autism as appreciated by the person using the word?
Frankly, you’re going to be damned no matter which term you choose, and I’m far more interested in the substance of what someone says rather than getting hooked up on whether they used “autistic” or “has autism”. But I do think it’s worth explaining the depth of confusion and contradiction involved in claims that choosing one type of terminology over another reveals something vital about your attitude towards autism.
I’m going to begin with the attitude that autism is just a trait of a person, rather than the whole identity of the person. Usually, those holding this view will argue for the use of the terminology , “has/with autism” rather than “autistic.” But is the trait a changeable one, or an inherent one? Is it something that can be altered with time (eg, is autism curable), or is it more like eye colour (you can make it look different externally but it is always there underneath)? If it’s the former, you’re more likely to use “has autism”, if it’s the latter, you’re more likely to say “is autistic” despite the fact that it is just a trait. So already we see that the idea of autism being a trait rather than central to identity, isn’t a clear-cut answer to chosen terminology. But it gets worse.
Let’s accept that it is either transitory or permanent, but definitely a trait (rather than central to the person); that still won’t mean one type of phrase is more accurate or enlightened than the other. For example, let’s say my eyes are blue. You could say I have blue eyes or I am blue-eyed. Both is OK, though the former does perhaps feel more natural. But if you use the latter, you have not denied it is merely a trait, and made the error of equating my entire being with the trait (as many claim re using the word “autistic”), you are just making an observation about something I have. That hardly makes the person who calls someone else “blue-eyed”, cruel by equating my whole being with my blue-eyedness.
Even if we accept that autism is just a trait, and it is important to not equate the whole person with the trait by referring to them as “autistic” (which I have already pointed out, isn’t a particularly strong argument), the moral relevance of that equating it with identity, depends on your view of whether autism is a good thing or a bad thing. If the “trait” of autism is seen as a negative thing, then you are far more likely to want to distance it from the person; it is just something they have, not something they are. Whereby using the terminology “has autism” might make more sense. But if the owning of the autism trait, is seen as a trait, but a positive one, you are more likely to have no compunctions about the phrase, “is autistic”, since it’s not going to demean or mark out the person in some cruel way.
But who’s opinion towards autism matters? If you’re worried about society’s attitude towards autism – you know it’s not the end of the world but society thinks it is – then you may push for the “has autism” designation. But if society’s attitude does suck monkey balls, and you want to change it, you might actually encourage people to use “autistic” as a show of pride and intentional ownership of the supposed trait.
The strongest position for consistently using “has autism” then, is reflected by the view that (a) autism is at least potentially transitory, rather than a permanent aspect of the person, (b) autism is a trait rather than a larger aspect of identity, and (c) it is a negative trait. As soon as you start to vary from those three parts, the argument for preferential use of “has autism” weakens even further (and it was pretty weak to begin with). Basically, the analogy of some unpleasant disease would be the strongest comparison. In the same way that you wouldn’t call some one “cancerian” (unless you were referring to their star-sign), you would say they “have cancer.”
What then, are the active (rather than re-active) claims for using the term “autistic”, and do these arguments fare any better in their persuasive force?
“Autistic”, like “Jewish” or “African” can be used as a partial descriptor of identity. Except, autism is more than “one of many” aspects of someone’s identity. Whether autism is transitory (potentially curable) or permanent, it affects so much of how the individuals observes, understands, and operates within the world, that referring to someone as “autistic” tells you a lot about them. Most people who actively adopt the word “autistic” in preference to “has autism”, see autism as something inherent to the person; that even if the symptoms of autism can be covered up with enough behavioural training and will-power, that autism still permeates the thought-processes of the person so that they remain “autistic” (even though autism is identified by its symptoms).
Many people who choose to use the word “autistic” also adopt it as a power-term; signifying pride and belonging. Considering the largely negative opinions of society (at least historically) towards autism, this might be seen as a movement to own and redefine a label in a positive way “yes, my son / I am autistic, you got a problem with that?”. Alternately, it can just be seen as an acceptance of a truth about one-self at a more observational (less emotive) level: “I am autistic” much like “I am female.” Usually it’s a mix of the two: A sort of acceptance of an observational truth.
The attack that calling someone autistic, means you are ignoring the person behind the autism, is a presumption that the autism and the person are separable, which is not self-evident. It is also a presumption that calling someone autistic means we have forgotten the rest of their identity. This is rather absurd; it would be like saying that calling someone “Christian” means you have forgotten their gender, their hair colour, their relationship status, etc. This idea – that calling someone autistic appears to cancel out other aspects of their identity – again seems to turn on the notion that knowing or seeing someone as autistic, damages or hurts them in some way. And now we’re back to the negative view of autism, and whose negative view is relevant (society’s or the individual speaking) and how that attitude can be changed (by proudly adopting the terminology, or by fighting it by showing the person behind the label).
It would seem that the strongest position for using the word “autistic” to define a person in preference to “has autism” is (a) when autism is seen as a permanent aspect of a person, (b) that is central to their identity rather than a trait (for example), and (c) autism is seen as having positive connotations. As soon as you soften any of these three notions, you’ll strengthen the pull of the alternate phrase, “has autism.”
Frankly though, a preference for the use of either “has autism” or “is autistic” isn’t strong either way. And the presumptions people place on others about their beliefs, for using one term rather than the other, are usually poorly or inadequately thought-out (or at least, poorly or inadequately expressed). At the very least, attacking some poor soul for not using what you think is the “right” terminology, is not wise. Better to always read what they have to say; look at their content rather than their turn of phrase. Particularly if their message contradicts your assumptions about the beliefs expressed in the chosen phrase.
Like I said at the start, I prefer to pick and choose the terminology as suits my writing style at the time. Sometimes “has autism” is cumbersome and drags out a sentence. Sometimes “autistic” doesn’t provide the right emphasis or deliver the right punch. Hell, sometimes I choose which one I want purely cause it sounds great: “The awesome artistic autistic” sounds better than “the awesome artistic person with autism.” Or “The child with a beautiful mind, a soaring soul, and autism” delivers a different feel and focus than “the autistic child with a beautiful mind and a soaring soul.” Sometimes the message you are trying to get across with your writing is held back by being forced to choose a particular phraseology.
There are times when there are objective and convincing arguments for the choice of one phrase over another, but in my own musings and experience, I do not think choosing between “autistic” and “has autism” is one of those cases. (I encourage you to attempt to convince me otherwise though.)