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.