Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Is “autistic” an insult?

Recently I was told I shouldn’t use the word “autistic” to refer to my son. I should put the person before the condition, this lady told me. So I should say “Calder has autism”, rather than “Calder is autistic”. Ironically this lady does not have a child with autism. She is, however, a strong advocate for people with special needs. Am I being insensitive to use the word “autistic”? Someone posted Mr Brown’s article on his daughter’s first word. I thought: hey, let me read that again. Yes, Mr Brown used the term “autistic daughter”. So I’m not the only one. When my hubby got home from work, immediately I asked him:  is it ok for people to use “autistic” to describe Calder, or should they use “has autism” instead? What’s the big deal, my hubby said. Then I decided to ask more parents. I posted a mini-survey on a few parent-support Facebook sites:

Do you mind when people refer to your child as “autistic”?
(a)    Yes, I mind. It is better to say my child “has autism”.
(b)   No I don’t mind. Makes no difference to me.

68 parents responded to this mini-survey. Among them, 52 chose (b). In other words, 76% don’t see a difference. Since I am part of this group, let me explain why.

1.      This issue is immaterial among the overwhelming challenges faced by families with autistic children. When you are trying to keep your son from running away from you, when he is agitated yet cannot tell you what’s bothering him, when he knocks at everything including cars with drivers in them, do you think you have the energy to insist that people use the politically correct term?

2.      Many of us have become so thick-skinned we are immune to people staring at our kids, much less people who use politically incorrect terms. Calder is in the lift and getting very excited. He starts flapping his hands and gets ready to bounce. “No jumping in the lift, Calder!” Oops, he has landed on uncle’s toe. “So sorry, my son is autistic,” I explain to strangers for the umpteenth time. As you can see, the word “autistic” slides off from my tongue very naturally. I would use it instead of its more formal cousin “has autism”. In fact, I’d only rephrase the sentence to “my son has autism” if the stranger thought I’d said Calder is “artistic”. As it is, I can’t even be sure the public understands what’s “autistic”. Wonderful if they do! So do you think I’d be offended if they use the word?

3.      The alternative form makes the sentence less easy to understand. This became very clear to me when I started writing “Come into My World: 31 Stories of Autism in Singapore”. Take for example the sentence in Point 1:

      This issue is immaterial among the overwhelming challenges faced by families with autistic children.

      Imagine using the so-called politically correct alternative:

      This issue is immaterial among the overwhelming challenges faced by families with  children with autism.
      A mouthful indeed! And ambiguous too, since “with autism” can also refer to the families, instead of the children. The same problem surfaces when I send messages to fellow parents, informing them of autism events or researches requiring their participation:

“For families with autistic children:” 


“For families with children with autism:” 

Do you see what I mean?

4.      Autism is very much a part of who Calder is, so I do not think it is inaccurate to say “Calder is autistic”. Perhaps if Calder has a milder form of this condition, to the extent of being able to blend into the crowd like neuro-typical children, perhaps then I’ll be more careful not to use the term “autistic”. Then again, I wouldn’t use “autism” either, just so that he may remain undercover and not be ostracized or singled out.

5.      What is the difference between “he is autistic” and “he is artistic”? We use this sentence structure all the time. For example, Calder is active. Calder is strong. Calder is impatient. Must I change them to “Calder has active disposition”, “Calder has great strength”, and “Calder has the tendency to be impatient”? When someone says your daughter is pretty, are you going to react with the diatribe of not limiting the girl to just prettiness and therefore recommending the use of “she has a pretty appearance”? “Autistic” only sounds like an insult if you think it is in the same camp as “idiotic”. It is not, and so parents like me do not shun it. In fact, there are people who refer to themselves as Autists, or Aspies. They are proud of being different.

6.      I don’t think people who use the word “autistic” mean to insult. More often than not, it’s simply because they have not heard an advocate recommending the politically correct  version. The layperson wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between “a beautiful girl” and “a girl with beauty”.  I first became aware of “autistic” as a taboo word when I talked to lecture classes of students on autism. No, I am not an expert on autism; I merely share my experience as mother of an autistic child (try rephrasing this into the politically correct form and you will see what complication results). When the students heard me using the term “autistic”, they became puzzled and asked: isn’t it insulting? At least that’s what their well-meaning special-needs lecturers told them. I replied: it makes no difference to me. Being sensitive is a positive first step towards supporting the autism community and I do so hope the support does not stop at words. Yet I have come across adult students (educators taking Leadership courses, for instance) who think it is very selfish for parents to put their autistic children in mainstream schools.  These same students would use the politically correct term, but is that any consolation to us? 

So what’s the conclusion?

1.      My husband says that since there are people who mind, even if they are the minority, then use “with autism” instead of “autistic”. I concede, provided it doesn’t cloud my sentence or make me sound unnecessarily formal.

2.       If parents do not think it is an insult, and the children themselves know no better, there is no need to insist on the politically correct usage.

3.      Action speaks louder than words. Move beyond words to campaigns that can make real difference to lives, like caregivers’ respite, integration of special needs people into mainstream society, employment for people with autism etc.

If you are a member of the public, I thank you for reading this article. Empathy for people with autism develops with familiarity. Allow yourself to know more about autism. If there is a show on autism, watch it. If a book, read it. I am reminded of an old uncle who travelled from Marine Parade to Bishan to purchase a Chinese copy of “Come into My World: 31 stories of Autism in Singapore”. Speaking in Mandarin, this old uncle told the counter staff at Pathlight Mall that where he stayed, he often saw groups of autistic children taking walks in the vicinity. He wanted to understand them better, that’s why he went to Pathlight Mall to purchase this book, which he had read about in the Chinese papers. That’s what I call an active first step to supporting the autism community. When the heart is ready, the hands will be too, when opportunities arise to help. I thank you in advance, on behalf of the autism community.

Related information:

On the book “Come into My World: 31 Stories of Autism in Singapore”:

On Mr Brown’s article regarding his daughter’s first word:

Other articles on this topic:

(In the above article, the mom compares “I have a son with autism, twinkling green eyes, long brown hair, the cutest smile, an infectious laugh, and an apparent lifelong obsession for the freakin Wiggles” to “an autistic son”. I think a fairer comparison should include similar attributes on both sides: “I have an autistic son with twinkling green eyes, long brown hair, the cutest smile, an infectious laugh, and an apparent lifelong obsession for the freakin Wiggles”. )

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