Updated: Apr 11
If you or someone you know is Autistic, it's part of your vernacular. Whether you're making TikToks, commenting on Reddit, or chatting in person, you probably talk about autism quite a bit.
The way we talk about autism has shifted greatly throughout the past 50 years. Let’s take a look back at how the language has evolved and why it matters going forward.
Autism as a disease
Parents and caregivers were at the forefront of autism's first advocacy efforts. After decades of accusations, they aimed to dispel myths like the "refrigerator mother." These parents worked to raise awareness of their children's differences and unmet needs.
Psychologist Lorna Wing was one such parent advocate. She and Judith Gould first identified autism's "triad of impairments" in 1979. This cohesive definition of autism was added to the DSM-III the following year. Medical practitioners were now able to diagnose based on concrete criteria, instead of opinion. Like Wing's article, much of early advocates' language was neutral and focused on how the Autistic brain works. They aimed to increase access to needed supports by using credible, medically-focused information.
Unfortunately, we've seen what happens when advocates take "raising awareness" to the extreme. One of the most notable examples is the 2009 “I Am Autism” infomercial by Autism Speaks. This notorious ad used medicalized language, stating that “[autism works] faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer, and diabetes combined.” In step with other messages of the time, this ad framed autism as a disease that our society should seek to cure.
This "doom and gloom" language perpetuates an unbalanced view of Autistic experiences. It erases the positive aspects of being neurodiverse. Besides, they never asked us if we wanted to be "cured" in the first place!
Autism as a superpower
To counter the disease discourse, Autistic self-advocates began to discuss the positives. People described their intense joy over their interests and deep empathy for others. Sharing meaningful (and wonderful!) parts of the Autistic experience helped bring our community together.
But this was a trap--some people began to talk about only the positives of autism. Some even claimed that autism is the next stage in human evolution or some sort of superpower. To combat past negative messaging, they framed Autistics as superior beings.
Many Autistic people came to realize the downside of this strategy. These overly-positive narratives could paint autism as all sunshine and rainbows. Neurotypicals might be less likely to acknowledge their support needs if this discourse persisted.
The Teeter-Totter Method
So, if it is not helpful to talk about autism as a disease nor a superpower, then how should we discuss it?
I would like to advocate for what I have dubbed “the Teeter-Totter Method.” It is important to take a balanced approach when describing autism, and to not lean too heavily on either negative or positive aspects.
Autistics must seek supports and accommodations from people outside the Disability community. To get these needs met, it is important to acknowledge that autism can come with some challenges. In this context, the most balanced strategy is to use neutral, matter-of-fact language. This prevents us from feeling a sense of shame that can stick with us for years, or even decades.
Here's an example of a single support need outlined in three different ways:
Of course, we don't need to use neutral language all the time. Outside of the support-seeking context, we can (and should!) celebrate the joys of our Autistic experiences. It's probably best to do this without claiming to be superior beings, despite our x-ray vision and teleportation (shh…don’t tell the neurotypicals!).
As our norms around language continue to shift, let’s be conscious of how we talk about autism. Our words have an impact on ourselves, our community, and our access to support.
If you want to better understand your Autistic experience, it helps to have some guidance. An Autism Personal Coach can help you discover your own language preferences and how to use them to advocate for yourself. Contact us today and take the next step in your self-advocacy journey!