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Updating the Language We Use to Talk About Autism

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The way we talk (or should be talking) about autism today is very different from the way people used to talk about it. Why? Because what we know about autism has evolved thanks to the autistic self-advocates who are speaking out and telling the world how they want to be treated. Autism is a part of human diversity, and the best way to understand it is to hear the firsthand experiences of autistic individuals.

The words and phrases we use are changing too. It’s no longer acceptable to use language that is offensive to the autistic population. Many terms come from medical and educational circles, with little or no input from the people they serve. Other terms have become problematic over time as words shift in meaning and our views on disability evolve.

“The words we choose can be the difference between silencing the voices of autistic people and empowering them to lead conversations about their needs, their rights, and the way society views them,” said Lydia Wayman, a self-advocate, writer and early education specialist.

Lydia researched and compiled an updated glossary of terms that show respect for the autistic community. According to her, here are three key phrases to avoid and a better way to say them:

Symptoms of autism — Defines autism based solely on deficits.

Better choice — Signs of autism or autistic traits.

Differently-abled or special needs – Used as a substitute for disabled by those who consider it an offensive word. Self-advocates believe euphemisms add to stigma by presenting disability as a topic that should be avoided or talked around.

Better choice — Disability or disabled.

Suffers from autism – Adds to stigma by inaccurately implying that autism makes for a lesser life experience.

Better choice Autistic or on the autism spectrum.

Lydia also wants you to know that the updated glossary reflects the “preferences of most self-advocates, but they should not be viewed as the only acceptable options. In one-on-one interactions, allies to the autistic community can show respect by deferring to the language preferences of that individual.”

View the entire autism glossary and list of words and phrases to avoid on the Geek Club Books website. A PDF version is available to download as well.

Getty image by Monticello.

Originally published: February 19, 2019
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