When People Use 'Autistic' as an Insult

If you’ve been surfing the Internet, you might have noticed the use of autistic as an insult. If you haven’t seen the word used in this manner, here’s a hypothetical example where I, an administrator, have banned Joe12 on a forum for getting into an argument with another user named BobTheGreat.

Joe12: “Toren, why did you ban me for three days? I did no harm.”

Toren: “I’m sorry Joe, but you shouldn’t have gotten into an angry argument with BobTheGreat.”

Joe12: “But it wasn’t my fault!”

Toren: “We clearly state in the forum rules that arguing for the purpose of arguing is not acceptable. You’ll be able to post again in three days, so it’s not the end of the world.”

Joe12: “You’re autistic, dude.”

As someone who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in the days of the DSM-IV (which seemed quite accurate at the time – nowadays, I’m not quite so sure), I unsurprisingly have an opinion on the matter.

The greatest problem I have with using “autistic” as an insult this way is that it grossly oversimplifies the condition, basically turning it into a synonym for being rude. Sure, some people with autism are rude, but there are also non-autistic people that are rude. And not all autistic people come across as rude. Many come across as shy instead. When someone such as myself appears to be rude (which for me happens roughly once a month) it’s generally not intentional. Instead, it’s because for some reason, I didn’t read various social cues (both verbal and nonverbal) very accurately, and didn’t realize what I said wasn’t appropriate in that situation. Or even more commonly, I realize what I said was rude a second or two too late, when I can’t unsay what’s been said, essentially the equivalent of shooting first and asking questions later.

Another contributing factor to why people with autism might be considered rude is not making eye contact with you. This is an interesting topic for me, because while I find it very difficult to make eye contact with my family, it’s completely natural when talking to almost everyone else.

There’s a lot more to autism than simply have trouble in social situations, which is the stereotypical trait most people seem to associate with the condition. In general, most autistic individuals will have trouble dealing with change, repetitive speech or motor movements (stimming, as it’s often known), strong, unusually fixated interests, and significant over-or-under-sensitivities to sensory stimuli.

About a decade ago when I was first diagnosed, those secondary criteria (except for sensory issues) practically fit like a glove; I couldn’t handle change without getting extremely angry, thought turning around and around in circles for hours was the best thing since sliced bread, would spend hours trying to learn everything there was to know about trains, and going somewhere with sudden loud noises would be as terrifying as someone putting a gun to my head. For some reason, and I don’t know why, these traits gradually disappeared as I entered my teens. By the time I entered first year university, they were pretty much gone and haven’t re-appeared since.

Finally, there are a good many people who simply won’t be offended by being called autistic as they are proud of it. While I can’t say that I’m necessarily proud of having an ASD (as I can’t relate to a lot of those on the spectrum very well), I won’t personally be offended by being called autistic, although I will take offense at the motivation for using the word in such a manner.

So please don’t judge a book by its cover. Unless you are trained, it is very difficult to know if a friend or family member has autism for sure, and you definitely cannot tell whether or not someone has autism by a quick online (or even face-to face) interaction. Using “autistic” as a synonym for being rude is simply contributing to the stigma around the condition. We need less of that, not more. A word or an object is not inherently good or bad. Whether it is used for good or evil is in your hands.

Getty image by Antonio Guillem.

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