Opinion – Use of ‘autism sufferer’ in the media to describe individuals with autism

Media perceptions of autism – On booting up my laptop this morning and doing my usual research into all of those autism stories of interest I happened to find an article, posted on the BBC Northern Ireland website that read as; Cinemas help make films accessible for autism sufferers.’  Now this made me stop in my tracks, as what grabbed me was the headline itself and the use of the word, ‘sufferer‘.

Now the article itself is wonderful. It describes how the family of a young child on the autistic spectrum enjoy going to watch Autism Friendly Screenings at their local cinema. So the article is therefore helping to spread autism awareness and share that cinemas are now partaking in such schemes. So this is an extremely positive article and one which I applaud.

But why add a title with the phrase, ‘autism sufferer’ to such an uplifting and positive story? Why the obvious juxtaposition? I don’t get it, shouldn’t the headline read something such as, Children with autism can now experience the delights of the cinema‘ or something of that nature?

Why add the word sufferer at all?

Why not simply emit this word? A part of me believes that headlines such as this are needed to grab the attention of readers, as it did me, but for totally the wrong reason. Another part of me also believes that the media and indeed the general public, believe that to have autism is to also suffer, and this is what angers me the most. This association and indeed stigma needs to stop. The media are helping to fuel such associations of suffering and misery with having an Autism Spectrum Disorder with headlines such as these.

The use of the word ‘sufferer’ when attached to autism is not helpful.

It is not helpful to the individual, the families who care for that loved one or indeed to the autism community as a whole. What this word does is once again label and define those individuals who are on the autism spectrum as sufferers.

I dislike the phrase  ‘autism sufferer’  as when I read this phrase, what is instantly conjured up in my mind are images  of bleakness and despair,  that the person whom the story is based upon  lives a life of misery. More importantly I also  feel that the phrase creates a link to the medical model of health, making autism appear as a disease, which it is not.

My little boy has Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and although I cannot truly speak for him, as only he knows how he feels, I do know that he is a happy, energetic and fun-loving little boy. We have our daily challenges it is true, but so do a lot of other people who are not on the autism spectrum. We all have our daily challenges in our lives. My little boy enjoys life, he is a little boy who just happens to be on the autistic spectrum; he is not an ‘autism sufferer.’ This pigeon holes my little boy, this is not his life, autism is one aspect of it.

We have adapted and made changes and I continue to learn in order to make life easier and happier for him, but to read such headlines on a daily basis is really not helpful. Life can be tough, yes, as already stated but you know what, we have fun, just as the little boy in this article from the BBC, so why haven’t they stated that in the title?

This article though is not alone, other such headlines that have been read include those along the lines of, ‘Mum of autism sufferer’; ‘mum in tears of joy after autism sufferer‘ and ‘therapy helps autism sufferer‘. Just do a quick Goggle search and you will see what I mean.

I know that some people will disagree with my comments here, and that’s ok, we all have our differing opinions. Some will say that their child does suffer, that they are on the severe end of the spectrum, or  that it is different for those who are on the high functioning end of the spectrum. Those comments will appear. But my little boy is not high functioning, he attends a specialist ASD school and I still say that he doesn’t suffer and I wish that the media would stop using this term.

So dear journalists of the world, instead of writing these all assuming headlines,  just state the facts. State that an individual has autism or is autistic ( there yet again is another heated debate) but please leave out the adjectives, those on the autism spectrum and those who care for them can do that themselves.

Comments are welcomed and encouraged.




  1. Roger Kulp December 10, 2014
  2. Julia February 11, 2015