Autism and the use of language

bad languageThe use of language in relation to autism is a very controversial topic at the moment.  Naturally people feel very strongly about which words are offensive, and which aren’t, and how somebody with autism should be referred to.

There are lots of words and phrases that were once common place, but are now considered extremely offensive, such as idiot or imbecile.  In the past these could be used as a medical diagnosis, whereas now they are unacceptable.  Often people will debate the use of phrases such as disabled, or learning difficulty.  Some autistic people have no problem with these, and openly refer to themselves as being disabled, whereas as others find these terms deeply offensive.

But there are other phrases which aren’t so openly offensive, which many people take issue with.  One of these is the debate between whether people with autism should refer to themselves as a person with autism, or an autistic person.  With two phrases such as these it’s quite forgivable not to be able to see the difference, but the depth of feeling these terms evoke in certain people can be deeply surprising to anybody who isn’t firmly on one side or the other.

People who say that they are a person with autism generally feel that as autism is only one part of them, they shouldn’t introduce themselves by saying they are an autistic person, simply that they are a person who happens to have autism, whereas people who introduce themselves as being autistic often say that others should not feel shame or embarrassment about being autistic, and that they should simply come out and say it.  They believe that as their brains are wired differently they are autistic, rather than simply having autism – so it is the way their brain functions, rather than an element of their personality.

Not all autistic people are bothered by this distinction, and many, in fact most, will use the two terms interchangeably – saying whatever fits best in to the conversation they are having.  But there have been cases recently of autistic people on social networking sites receiving abuse from other autistic people, because they referred to themselves in terms these people did not like.

There is also the issue of whether autism is a disorder, or a condition; a lot of people use the term disorder, but there are many who find that deeply offensive because it sounds so negative.  They prefer to use the term condition.  But there are others who say that calling autism a condition is offensive.

The reality appears to be that nearly everybody uses terminology that somebody will find offensive – even the most widely used phrases have their critics.

To say that there is no right or wrong terminology would be going too far; of course words like imbecile, and retard are definitely the wrong kind of terminology to be using.  It is akin to the debate over whether autism is a disability or not, and the fact is, whatever terminology is used somebody will be offended.

Autism Daily Newscast welcomes your comments on this topic below. Please vote your views as well.

online poll by Opinion Stage

The original blog on the use of language around autism/disability can be found here:


  1. Benison O'Reilly (@BenisonAnne) June 26, 2014
  2. Leisa A. Hammett June 28, 2014