I’ve seen a proliferation of people using the term ‘autistic’ to describe someone or something that they don’t like.
And I have some things I would like to say.
This isnt a new phenomenon (whether we’re talking about people using ‘autistic’ as an insult or the phenomena of me having something to say). It‘s something that has been bouncing around for a while, but it’s been seemingly thrown in my face in a big way over these last few week. Which is why I’ve decided to sit down and hash out a few words about it.
I know that there are people out there who would scoff and declare that ‘they’re just words’. And they are, of course, correct. To a degree. They are indeed ‘just words’. But words have meanings. That’s kind of their whole point. Words mean things. And because they mean things, they have power.
I am very well aware that I view the word ‘autistic’ from a very different perspective than most (neurotypical) people. If I’m not using it as a plain old descriptor, I’m mostly using it in a more personal, often positive and ‘celebrating the diversity’ sense. When the majority of people use ‘autistic’ as anything other than a neutral description of a person with (or trait seen in) autism, they are more often than not not using it to mean fabulous, wonderful, amazing or awe-inspiring.
Instead, it’s been explicitly linked to the following:
- Someone they don’t like.
- Someone behaving in a way they don’t like.
- Behaviour that they consider ‘stupid’ or not well thought through.
- Someone reacting to something in a way they think is over-the-top, hysterical and worthy of mockery.
When you use a particular word as a synonym for bad, the word itself becomes intricately entwined with the concept of badness. When you throw a term at people as an insult, it becomes something to be ashamed of, something to repress, and something completely and utterably undesirable.
So how are we, the actual people behind that word, supposed to perceive ourselves in this mess?
I think the best way I’ve ever heard it explained was by rugby player Gareth Thomas, in a TV programme he made about homophobia. He spoke to a group of teenagers who admitted using the word ‘gay’ as an insult or to signify something bad, and he explained how the intertwining of the word with that attitude contributed to his being closeted for many decades: ‘each time I hear it, it’s like a little cut, and each one of those little cuts scars’.
Words are important. Particularly when we’re talking about already marginalised identities – it’s already difficult enough existing as an autistic person in a world stacked against us (and often utterly indifferent to understanding us) without the very term we and the world use to identify us being inherently associated with negativity.
When discussing some of this with my brother the other day, I was upset (really quite upset) that he defended the use of ‘autistic’ as an insult (along with the use of terms like r*tard and sp*stic, terms which I never want to write again) because if we ban some words we have to ban all words, and also that to use the words gives them less power.
To the first point, I counter that that’s like saying that we can’t ban punching people in the face because then we would have to ban all arm movements. Which would be a nonsense. We know that moving your arm in that particular way causes harm, whereas other movements do not. Words are similar. Some words are like someone is punching you in the brain – and is the brain not the most sensitive of organs?
To the second point, I think there’s a pretty clear correlation between the growing social unacceptability of words like the ‘r’ slur and the ‘s’ slur and the growing act of treating disabled people a little bit better (ever so gradually and with a million miles left to go). I can assure you that the times these words were more readily used were not times of safety or peace for the people they were created against.
To claim to be actually helping in some way by using a slur linked to a marginalised group you don’t belong to, particularly if you only ever use it with negative connotations, is the height of arrogance and priviledge. Why don’t these people just admit that they want to use that word and have had to come up with a saviour-complex addled justification in order to do so? Maybe then I would judge them less. Or, actually, maybe I wouldn’t – but at least they’d be being honest with themselves.
I’m not angry with my brother (any more). I’m just lingeringly hurt. I’m also using this as a test to see whether or not he follows my blog. If you’re reading this – I love you but you done fucked up and I hope you feel bad.
Anyway, I’ve digressed away from the topic at hand and into the complicated world of slurs; that is, words that exist for or that have come to represent the degradation of a marginalised group. ‘Autistic’ is not one of those terms. But the ideas behind the power of language and how we use it? That still applies.
Now, I am a big promoter of the evolution of language. I love words. I have a degree in English Literature – words are kind of my thing. But I will not stand by and watch the bastardisation of a word that is part of my very definition. When people use ‘autistic’ as an insult, they might as well be using my own name.
‘Autistic’ is not a bad word. ‘Autistic’ is not an insult. To use it as such is to cause harm to all of those who have ‘autistic’ written into the strands of their identity. It is to make who we are something inherently bad or deserving of contempt, scorn and mockery. And we don’t need any more of that. We don’t deserve any more of that.
‘Autistic’ is difference. ‘Autistic’ is challenge. ‘Autistic’ is diversity. ‘Autistic’ is struggle. ‘Autistic’ is new ways of seeing the world. ‘Autistic’ is natural. ‘Autistic’ is something that doesn’t need to be fixed.
‘Autistic’ is ours. It’s what we make it. For better or for worse, we own it. Finally, after so much struggle, it belongs to us.
And you can’t have it back.