Thursday, 03 December 2009
What’s in a name? Apparently, everything, if you are a person with an autism or Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis. At issue is whether or not to use ‘autistic’ as an adjective or to keep the traditional PeopleFirst language of an ‘individual with autism.’ The reasoning for both have great merit.
PeopleFirst fans would claim that a person would never call an individual with cancer a ‘cancerous’ person, so why wouldn’t the diagnosis always be listed last? Thus, a person with a cognitive disability or a person with a cold or a person with an autism spectrum disorder deserves the same respect by placing the name of the individual first.
To their credit, the neuro-diversitivists who prefer the term ‘autistic’ agree that PeopleFirst language is courteous and respectful for persons with significant disabilities. However, many neuro-diversitivists, particularly those with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, prefer the term ‘autistic’ because they believe that their differences are strengths, and are not related to a disorder. Further, they would like to see Asperger’s removed from the DSM-IV classifications for autism spectrum disorders, because of the societal stigma, misunderstanding and discrimination that is generated by the diagnosis.
On a personal level, my son doesn’t like to be called ‘autistic’ or ‘a child with autism,’ but he doesn’t mind using the term autism to explain his differences. My adult Asperger friends prefer the term autistic. As a writer, an advocate, a friend and a mother, I’m stuck. I want to respect everyone, and I care deeply about their feelings, but I’m not exactly sure what to do. PeopleFirst language can be unwieldy, so it is easier to use the adjective when writing, but for all the individuals who have worked their tails off to remove the R word from government organizations and to implement PeopleFirst language, I feel like a traitor for abandoning it.
Recently, I saw a wonderful brochure about people with disabilities finding ‘real jobs’ in our state. The term ‘autism’ was never used. Instead, the individual was described as having a ‘learning disability.’ I think the authors were on to something. Perhaps when we talk about challenges, we could be much more specific, such as an individual with special sensory needs or speech or social delays. (Or in my case, as I sit here with a sprained ankle, perhaps individuals with balance issues! ) Kudos to the state of Missouri Planning Council for Developmental Disabilities for creating a humane, respectful and much more descriptive solution.
But more importantly, I think we need to do a much better job of recognizing and celebrating an autistic person’s strengths. Our kids, our friends, our colleagues and our relatives with autism diagnoses have abilities — attention to detail, memory, creativity, musical, artistic, mathematical and other skills — that are enviable, admirable and valuable to society.