Autism and Asperger Articles, Bill Stillman, Award-Winning Author

Demystifying Autism From The Inside Out

Why Language Matters

By William Stillman

Eagle-eyed readers of Youth Advocate Programs’ autism newsletter will have noticed a difference in the newsletter’s title between the first two issues and the copy you hold now. The first issue was called Autism and Developmental Disabilities Today but subsequent issues are titled Autism and Developmental Differences Today. Seem like a trivial exercise in semantics? Not if you’re the person being labeled—not only as “disabled” but as a “disordered, stricken and afflicted sufferer.” It appears so often that those who are normal or “neuro-typical” use the epitome of an optimal quality of life as the measuring stick of a successful existence; anyone falling short of that measurement is potentially dehumanized or pitied, or both.

Why does language matter and what makes it an important point of contention? Language matters because it shapes others’ perceptions and makes a statement about the user of insensitive and disrespectful language. Within the last year alone, witness those high-profile celebrities who have experienced significant backlash for their offensive language; discussion via all media outlets has been buzzing over certain personas’ very public use of the “N-word,” the “F-word,” or similar cultural and faith-based slurs. The backlash that prompted the ensuing “rehab” stints and public apologies was spurned by minority and advocacy groups vocalizing their extreme disdain for the egregious indignities violated upon them…because of language. Yet when discussing individuals with autism, there is a liberty taken in defining those very persons in terms of their label(s), limitations, and perceived deficits. Remember, too, that such individuals oftentimes cannot talk, or speak reliably; as such, there is at present no autism self-advocacy group that commands enough attention and respect to hold others publicly accountable for their misuse of language or their stereotypical portrayals of autism.

Youth Advocate Programs has made a commitment to refer to individuals with the ASD label (if necessary at all) in terms of an Autism Spectrum Difference instead of Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is progress, but it is only a beginning. Demonstrating true respect for individuals with autism requires one to be conscious and aware of not only the language being used, but the manner in which one interacts within the context of relationships. It is gracious to employ person-first language as a thoughtful demonstration of respect by verbally valuing the individual before describing them by their diagnosis or difference. For example, instead of calling someone “an autistic” or saying “autistic child,” you would value the person first by rightfully stating “child with autism.” In making this point about person-first language, advocate and mom Kathie Snow asks if you would rather be described as a person with cancer, or as cancerous? It is the difference between being sensitive or insensitive, between telling about who not what.

As you learn more about autism and partner with self-advocates, you may understand that persons on the autism spectrum, themselves, are not particular about person-first language; they may, in fact, refer to one another using slang terms such as autistics, auties, and Aspies. Additionally, you will frequently hear the same individuals refer to stims, stimmies, and stimming to connote the self-soothing or self-regulating techniques they employ to calm, quell and maintain (such as twirling a piece of string, or rocking or spinning in place). This does not mean that you should follow suit and abandon using person-first language. Persons on the autism spectrum enjoy a cultural privilege, a camaraderie that permits them to employ “insider” slang if they choose to, in the same manner that other cultural groups use certain labels in jest or affectionately among themselves but consider it offensive if an “outsider” uses the same terms.

Why is it respectful to use person-first terminology even though self-advocates refer to one another as auties, Aspies, and call self-soothing actions as stimming? Responding respectfully with person-first language compels you to be conscious of your words and aware of how you use them. It also means you are far less likely to be unpresuming of someone’s intellect by talking about them in front of them in ways that are hurtful, embarrassing and humiliating without a way to defend themselves—just as prominent advocacy groups have in recent times. Unless you have been specifically told differently by an individual with autism, continue to preserve the most respectful approach. You will, in no time, cringe or correct others when you don’t hear them using person-first language, and that’s a good habit to have.

©2007, William Stillman (

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