Concern Over Politically Correct Autism Rhetoric

I write over twice as many posts as I ever publish. Sometimes it’s because I want to think further over what I’ve written (and never come back to the post because life gets in the way). But the vast majority of the time, I choose not to hit “publish” because I suspect my post will be taken the wrong way or upset someone (or a group of someones) that I don’t want to upset. This is a sad state of affairs, since one of the reasons I started my blog was as a personal outlet, and a way to investigate and discuss sometimes-controversial ideas, and it has been very valuable for me (and apparently others) as such.

The post below is one of those posts I didn’t publish; it was written a few days ago and I was going to leave it on my dashboard like all the others. But due to the issue continuing to run around in my mind, and be present in so many discussions I come across, I’m going to share it anyway. I know some are going to react poorly to it, but I’m tired of paralyzing my self-expression and sharing of experiences, just to attempt the impossible task of keeping everyone else happy; that point is part of why I’m sharing this post (as you’ll see), but also deserves a post in itself at some point. For now though:

I must start this post by saying that I do think language choice can make a difference to perceptions and understandings of autism; that negative language can be detrimental and foster incorrect views about autism, and that positive (or neutral) language can encourage acceptance and better understanding. However, I’ve often seen these “language corrections” been used to shut down discussion, and to exclude people from taking part in discussions. Such language corrections also often come hand-in-hand with condescending and judgmental attitudes, that also serve to make the person being corrected feel belittled and shamed, regardless of the message or experience they were attempting to share.

In this post I am going to talk about this aspect of “politically correct autism rhetoric.” I am not pre-supposing the value (or lack of value) of such language corrections; that is a related and important topic, but not one central to this post (as I hope I will make clear).

First off, what sort of language corrections am I talking about here? Some examples: “neurotypical” instead of “normal;” “person with autism” instead of “autistic” (or swapped around, depending on your preference); “condition” instead of “disorder;” and “differently abled” instead of “disabled.”

It is hard – if not impossible – to discuss autism without falling into some or all of these language pitfalls. In fact, it is so difficult to maintain the “correct language” that even when you carefully change your word-choice to match the version you were last told to use, you’re as-often a target for someone else who thinks you’ve made an error too.

There is nothing wrong with arguing for a particular language choice in addition to a substantive comment responding to what has been said. Perhaps the writer is sharing their experience with autism and wasn’t aware of their faux-pas, in which case a response to the content of what they have said, accompanied by a side-point about the language they’ve used, would be perfectly appropriate and even educational. Far too often though what I come across is comments that do not respond to the content of what someone has said, but instead solely attack a word being used. Even worse, these attacks on chosen-words are rarely accompanied by an explanation of why the writer should have chosen different words.

For example, I think we’ve all come across someone who replies to a post “it’s person with autism, not autistic person” without any further comment.  Or “it’s not a disorder, it’s a condition”, or “don’t use the word normal.” These sorts of quick-dump comments, may leave the commenter feeling righteous and superior, but they leave the original writer feeling like not a word they have said was taken in or considered important. If anything, I suggest such comments leave a bad impression of the commenter, and may even lead to resistance to change on behalf of the original writer, since their intent and meaning is evidently considered less important or relevant than a poorly chosen word.

Many people who are new to autism rhetoric, can be overwhelmed by these endless corrections. I’ve read comments and posts by some who were scared away from either writing about or commenting on autism, because nothing they ever said was “right;” no matter how kind, correct or insightful their actual writing is.

Obviously particular posts – such as those directly reflecting on language choice and the effect of language choice – openly invite comment on wording; because that is the content of the post. And there are times when the language used through-out a post is used in support of a particular view about autism; where the language is used to intentionally reinforce a view without otherwise confronting the assumptions hidden in the language choice. Again though, the appropriate response to such writing is to explain to the author that their language choice is “in error” and why; merely telling them they shouldn’t use a word, or should replace it with another, is unlikely to impact on someone who has put such thought in the first place into their deliberate choice of words.

If one doesn’t want to explain the issue each time, it’s not hard to add more explanation and relevance to the language correction, by using a link to an explanation of what terms are preferred and why. The internet is chock-full of that sort of goodness. I for one always click-through to links people provide in comments, and have learnt a lot from doing so over the years. Surely it makes sense to presuppose the interest and intelligence of a writer, than to presume that they will mend their ways now that you’ve told them off.

I’ve got so used to trying to respond to the different autism rhetorics, that I will tend to use entirely different grab-bags of language depending on what sort of writer I am responding to. If it’s a new parent coming to terms with autism, I don’t drown them in “you’re speaking about it wrong” discussions, because that is not what those parents need; they’re already in a new world of scary unknowns, I wouldn’t want to isolate them further. Some blogs I visit intentionally use language that is more “aggressive” / traditional / medical (if you will) than the politically correct versions. If I want to comment on what those bloggers have written, I will avoid using language that I know will pit them against listening to what I have to say; the discussion and its content is more important than semantics (again, unless semantics are actually central to the post or what’s at issue). Similarly, I make the effort on other blogs to use the language that they find most respectful and most accurate; again, so that the discussion won’t be side-lined by debates over language choice.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have strong views about certain word choices; I do. For some words I don’t have preferences or my views are continuing to evolve or change. And so I actively seek out posts about language choice and pay attention when people intelligently argue one way or the other. But I do not let those debates overwhelm meaningful exchanges with others; I want to understand the point someone is trying to make, even when they struggle to find the “right” words to make it. Autism, and living with autism, is challenging enough, without trying to satisfy every autism-faction with your word choice.

I’m going to end on the point that I have already tried to make clear, but I know it will suit some agendas to ignore my insistence: I am not saying language doesn’t matter; it does. I am not saying we shouldn’t correct upsetting or incorrect wording choices; we should. I am saying that we shouldn’t let language choice dominate or override otherwise meaningful exchanges, and that the content of a post shouldn’t be ignored because we don’t like word choice (I’ve seen plenty of instances too where commenters have claimed the author doesn’t mean what they’re saying – for example, that despite professed love, they clearly hate their child – since they used the “wrong words”). I think it is meaningful – and more helpful – to discuss language choice alongside discussions about autism, rather than let them dominate and shut-down otherwise important dialogues. In a community where communication issues are a central concern anyway, I’d have hoped to see more understanding and tolerance of language “mistakes” made along the way.

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16 Responses to Concern Over Politically Correct Autism Rhetoric

  1. Tsara says:

    You already know my thoughts on this. They are almost precisely the same as yours, and I thank you so much for bravely sharing with clarity and intelligence the importance of this issue. I often want to stand on the sidelines and offer my thoughts only when asked, but I’m starting to worry that the emphasis on rhetoric might be a little bit dangerous. For all the reasons you point out in this post and more. I want to share a piece my mom wrote on this issue, as well as one that I wrote. Mine is much less controversial and more ‘cute’ than anything else (and about words in general, not directed to the world of disability), but I’m still proud of it, because I really do agree that language is important. To pretend that our words aren’t powerful is also dangerous. I’m so glad you wrote this piece and will absolutely share it widely!!

  2. Jim Reeve says:

    I too am guilty of language mistakes and honestly, I don’t really even notice that I use certain words. But that’s the point of having a blog right? It’s an online diary full of someone’s personal thoughts. And if I find a persons post offensive, I still try and read it and I accept their ideas. I just don’t comment on them.

    I also think a person should be able to say what they want, or describe autism however they want in their blog. Each situation is different, so who am I to try and correct their thought.

    • Good points Jim. I think that’s part of the central value of blogs (personal blogs in particular); it allows insight into others’ minds and worlds. They aren’t always tidy minds and worlds – and we won’t always like what we see – but it is valuable to get the chance to both share and share-in those different view-points and experiences.

  3. mrsstone says:


  4. Jo Ashline says:

    BRAVO!!!! I went through a “Language”scenario back in March. My original post was intended as a sort of “HOORAY” for my son and I used a phrase that many self-advocates as well as some parents of children with autism found to be offensive. But instead of building a dialogue around the post, I was called a bigot and a child abuser. It was awful. I finally found a site I trusted where I was able to openly discuss the post with folks that took offense to it. The end result was many quality conversations that helped me to see an entirely different point of view that I never even considered. It was a full circle for me, a very emotional and eye-opening experience. The other thing I learned? There are bullies everywhere, no matter what diagnosis they may have. Those that truly want to contribute to the greater consciousness of the autism community do so with an open mind and a forgiving heart. Name calling and internet bashing serves no one.

    • Good point about bullying Jo; some of this issue is going to be around the personalities of those commenting more so than just the issue of being politically-correct with language. Many people are struggling to understand and live with the challenges that autism poses, I think it’s one of those communities where it really is very important to realise that learning about autism (and autism language) is a long journey, and if we want to direct someone down a certain path on that journey, it makes more sense to do it with kindness and encouragement (the same way we find works best with our children, not surprisingly).

    • mrsstone says:

      Jo, I was a witness to the process you mention above. I found it painful to observe and frustrating on so many levels. I’m glad you found this wonderful blog 🙂

  5. Rachel says:

    Lots to consider here…

    I think that there is a really big difference between discussing the implications of certain kinds of language and telling people what language they should use. The person-first language zealots really irk me — not because I think that person-first language is always bad in every case (I don’t, and I use it myself sometimes), but because they insist that it is the *only* right way to talk about disability. I have also run across identity-first zealots who are absolutely hostile to me if I call myself “a person with Asperger’s,” and I have the same response, for the same reason. I don’t like language policing, except in cases in which the intent is clearly negative and offensive. And fortunately, I don’t run across a lot of person-first/identity-first zealots. Most people I’m acquainted with are happy to use the terminology the other person prefers when talking about them.

    However, what I really like is discussing the impact of language, for good or for ill, so that people think about the language they use and its implications. Getting people sensitive to the power of language is far more important, and far more useful in the long run, than discussions of which is the “right” word. And yes, there are words I won’t tolerate (retard or any of the variations thereof), and I will argue with people who use the word “hate” when talking about disability, and I’ll analyze the pejorative attitudes toward disability that person-first language hides, but I think that more is gained from discussing with people the power of words than setting down rules.

    • Nicely said Rachel, and such a good point too.

      I consider you an authority of the importance of (and assumptions hidden in) language used around disability and autism especially, and continue to learn a lot from you and your posts on language.

      Thanks for your comment.

  6. Kim Wombles says:

    Well, crap. Wrote a long response and lost it to the vagaries of logging in.

    Great post.

    Although the flyby comments and attacks make blogging an occasional or often stressful experience (depending on the week and how pugilistic one is feeling), the band of friends and the subsequent support makes it worth it. I appreciate yours (and Jo’s, Rachel’s, and MrsStone’s) bloggy and fb friendships and look forward to getting to know Tsara and Jim better, as well.

    Our community could benefit from thoughtful reflection and insightful discussion, and there’s plenty of that to be found–makes all the vipers’ nests worth it–especially since we can intentionally avoid those places we don’t find helpful.

  7. Lauren says:

    I recently ran into a situation like this in person– it doesn’t just happen in blogs/ online! I also think language is important and discussions about it have their place, but not always at the expense of the substance of the dialogue in question. You can see more details about the “conversation” that took place in my new blog post here (where I reference this great post!):

  8. Chris says:

    How do you know if a person has “autism”. How do you know it is not diabetes or a brain tumour or poor nutrition? Does autism show up in brain scans?

    • Yes, autism has markers that can be identified in brain scans, thought his area of study continues to evolve. More importantly, brain tumours, diabetes, and poor nutrition can all be tested for and identified, so it is possible to figure out if those were present as well or instead of autism. Furthermore, I’ve known people with those other conditions you mentioned, and not one of them exhibited autistic behaviours because of their conditions – it’s not like there are diagnostic cross-overs going on there.

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