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Why 'Autistic' and 'Autism' Are Not Dirty Words

Autistic appears to be an insult in this world. While cringing at the past tense usage, I replied to my conversation partner, "I am autistic. I have autism." Present tense. I live in a world where normally, it is safer to hide it than to be criticized for how I see myself.
01/07/2016 11:57am ET | Updated January 7, 2017
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"Autistic" and "autism" are not dirty words and typical people avoid them like the plague. Meanwhile, "retarded" is a dirty word, and typical people throw it around like a football.

A few days ago, I was talking about autism very casually in a conversation about my childhood. The look on my conversation partner's face when I said the word "autistic" was a Kodak moment in horror: "So you were autistic?"

Autistic appears to be an insult in this world. While cringing at the past tense usage, I replied to my conversation partner, "I am autistic. I have autism." Present tense. I live in a world where normally, it is safer to hide it than to be criticized for how I see myself.

Rappers like 50 Cent and J. Cole get in trouble for using "autistic" out of context in their tweets or lyrics. They use it as an insult to how a person looks, much like the r-word. So they have to apologize, and the status of the terminology does not hang in limbo. It is an allegedly controversial word to begin with, and it gets muddied even further when it's used incorrectly. Meanwhile, Iggy Azalea can use the r-word and get a smash summer hit. Nobody lit a fire underneath her to change the words of "Fancy," and the r-word gets censored on radio and television. As far as autistic: nobody censors it, but the folks outside of the disability community who use it are forced to apologize.

I notice that marginalized groups sometimes reclaim words. I've seen it happen multiple times. I don't know if I've reclaimed a descriptor that is a variation on a current clinical term, but I have embraced it. It is factual and to the point. It does not hurt anyone. Autistic is... a celebration, a declaration, a way of life, and a huge part of who I am. It is like being blind or smart, I suppose. A person doesn't have blindness. She doesn't have smartness. A person is blind; she is smart. I am also autistic.

I do not have to reclaim who I am from people who do not know how to properly use an identity of mine and find it offensive for whatever the reason.

I also do not have to answer to anyone who tells me to select a preference between person-first or identity-first language. Person-first is saying "I have autism," or "I am a person with autism"; identity first is saying "I am autistic." They both convey the same concept. I can use the words I want, and somehow, they might still be wrong depending on who you ask. I am a person. I have identities. I switch between the two and have no distinct preference. I am simply grateful if you choose to acknowledge I am on the autism spectrum because some people find it easier to deny than to accept. I am autistic and I am a person with autism. How you refer to me, as either autistic or a person with autism, really doesn't make an iota of a difference to me. We are aiming for the same idea. What language I use does not change the challenges I face, or that the autism and disabilities communities face. There are bigger battles out there than which word means what if they both mean very similar things. And one of those bigger battles that stems from semantics is people being afraid to use words that need to be spoken about openly and honestly.

"Autistic" and its variants are not dirty words. The abuse of them is a dirty practice.

"Autism" as a dirty word is my second language issue. The r-word is my primary one; it is an insult and an outdated clinical term (we use "intellectual disability" and its variants today). But people avoid the word "autism," as if I am going to be offended by something I advocate for, am aware of, and is a significant part of my being.

I had a friend who was afraid of the word "autism". He referred to it as "differences". It was very sugarcoated; meanwhile, I'm pretty sure he would call a Jack a Jack and a Spade a Spade. Personally, I found it somewhat dehumanizing; it denies me the markers to finish coloring in the outline of the picture of who I am.

I don't think "autism" should be treated as a dirty word. I am sad that people shy away from something I have absolutely no issue with. Especially typical friends, because I live with my autism, and they get to take it to the beach or whatever and resume life as normal afterwards. They are not me. They are not the parents of an autistic child, or a sibling of a person with autism. Autism is not a part of their world; it seen is a temporary visitor who can hide in the corner of the room. Sometimes, it's not a visitor, and it is the elephant in the room, but that doesn't change things for them. If you're afraid of "The Word," then you're afraid to talk about it or change your understanding.

Let's play a game, shall we? Let's be afraid to use "The Word," and have a conversation together. Fill in the blanks with a word or words that seems less threatening, and let's see how different it sounds:

  • "Oh, so what's it like having The Word?"

  • "I have The Word; The Word doesn't have me."
  • "Because of The Word, you are happy, self-aware, and the person you were meant to be."
  • Is it that threatening? Can you have filled in a certain amount of "The Word" with another disability, with culture, an idea? I think so. It isn't so threatening that way, is it?

    Autism gets a bad rap in the media. Watch enough television, and you'll see what I mean. I can only imagine why some people are so afraid of "The Word."

    But if they're afraid of the word "Autism," they're afraid of me. And I don't know how to feel about that.