Navigating the different autism terminology used to describe autism can be tricky! Using the right words is more important than one might think – it shows respect and acceptance. While using the wrong terminology can hurt the sentiments of the community.
So, here’s a quick primer on some previously used terms that are now considered offensive and the preferred alternatives:
- Autistic person or person with autism
‘Autistic person’ is an identity-first phrase, emphasizing the identifying adjective ‘autistic’. ‘Person with autism’ is a person-first phrase implying that a diagnosis doesn’t define a person. Both are acceptable. Ultimately, though, how each person describes themselves, and how they want to be described by other people, is up to them.
- Asperger’s Syndrome
For a long time, this term was used to describe individuals on the autism spectrum with less severe or mild symptoms. However, today (especially after the apparent Asperger-Nazi collusion came to light), this term has taken on a more offensive shade.
- ‘Normal’ or ‘Neurotypical’
The way you describe comparison groups while talking to a person with autism and their parents or other relatives also matters a lot. Instead of referring to people who are not on the autism spectrum as ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘normally developing’, refer to them as ‘neurotypical’.
- Low-functioning and high-functioning labels
The current autism diagnostic model works based on the support needed by autistic individuals in specific areas and not on the level of functioning. As such labels based on the level of functioning are generally considered offensive by many autistic individuals.
- ‘Retarded’ or ‘backward’
Terms such as retarded, or mentally handicapped are derogatory, immensely offensive, and should be avoided at all costs. More respectable phrases such as ‘developmental delay’ or ‘intellectual disability’ should be used instead.
Often Autistic people use the terms ‘autist’ or ‘autie’ (short for autistic) and ‘Aspie’ (short for Asperger’s syndrome) among themselves and it is perfectly fine. However, usage of these terms by non-autistic people is considered rude and disrespectful.
- Using autism as an insult
It’s time now that we, as a society, mindfully refrain from perpetuating the misunderstanding and stigma surrounding autism spectrum disorder. One sure way to achieve this is by avoiding using any words or phrases used to describe an autistic person to insult other people.
It is always a good idea to have an open and honest discussion about the acceptability or non-acceptability of specific autism terminology. At the same time, it is important to be adaptive, keen, and ready to learn, unlearn and relearn concepts based on context.
It also helps to remember that autism is not a disease or an illness. It is a disorder or a condition that must be destigmatized for a better, more inclusive society.