Problematic language: Functioning labels
Why is it problematic? Person-first language ("person with autism") automatically puts autism in the same category as a disorder, disability, or even disease. It is more likely to create stigma. As deftly explained by autistic activists, it denies something that makes you 'you'. Some people do think of their autism as a disability and use person-first language, and they have every right to think about and talk about it however they feel comfortable. But generally, the preference of surveyed autistic people is for identity-first language ("autistic people"). See below for Beth Wilson's beautiful comic!
Deficit-based or medicalised language
Why is it problematic? Like "person with autism", deficit-based or medicalised terms used to refer to autistic people or set them apart from other non-autistic individuals (e.g. "symptoms of autism", "healthy controls", "autistic deficits", "comorbid", "at risk of autism", etc) - all of these frame autism as something negative, frame autistic brains as broken brains. Unsurprisingly, people have poorer mental health when they think of themselves as broken. Medicalisation of autism creates stigma and is opposed to the neurodiversity paradigm where different neurotypes are equally respected and valued for their unique abilities and perspectives - which is the world we want to strive for. This article provides a great explanation of how this approach can co-exist with recognising support needs! See below for another beautiful comic by Beth Wilson.
Click here for the whole thing!
confusing sex and gender; suggesting sex and gender are binary; making assumptions about someone's gender based on bodily processes or features
Why is it problematic? This invalidates the experience and existence of people who are transgender, intersex, and/or fall outside the gender binary (see here for a good glossary of terms). Sex and gender are different things and the difference has important implications for things like health. This is important to be aware of as autistic people are more likely to identify outside the sex/gender binary. See below for a cool visual explanation.
See more of Beth's work here!
These are the problematic things I am aware of in some of my earlier work. But if there are things I have missed, or ways I could make my language more inclusive and respectful, please send me a message on my contact page!
The language we use affects the lives of autistic people.
Science and knowledge are constantly evolving. We are only recently coming to understand that the language people use to talk about autism and autistic people - the representations and ideas that we create with those words - are powerful. Conventional ways of writing about autistic people have often stigmatised and disempowered them. Scientists coming into these fields and these established ways of talking have often unwittingly contributed to the problem. I must humbly own my regret for some of the language used in my older papers, which is reflective of conventional practice in the scientific community at that time. We all worked with the best of intentions, but without the awareness of today.
There are some excellently-written arguments and explanations for why certain terminology is at best imprecise or inaccurate, and at worst harmful. Please click on the underlined text below to read or listen to these pieces (links open in new windows). In noting below where problematic terminology has cropped up in my own writings, my aim so is to try to dispel some of the harm my words may have contributed to, but also to hold myself accountable. I warmly welcome comments or feedback about anything else that can make my writing more respectful, ethnical and inclusive.
They are also simplistic, disregarding the many ways autistic people differ, and ignoring the fact that people can struggle with some things on some days which are no problem on other days! They also do not necessarily tell us anything about meaningful outcomes like happiness. See below for an awesome comic by Rebecca Burgess!