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Please Don't Use the 'B-Word' to Describe My Autistic Son

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I’ve written before about various words that have hurt or triggered me over the years. For a while it was the word “autism” itself, or as I liked to call it “the A-word.” I was afraid of what I didn’t understand, so I preferred we not speak the word at all.

Then came the F-word. No, not that one. That one I know and do not fear using with great regularity. The F-word I’m referring to is “friend.” I spent years obsessing and worrying about that word. I so desperately wanted my autistic son Ryan to have a friend and to be a friend, that the word friend itself caused me to shake. This particular F-word has no negative connotations except the perceived notion of what I thought friendship “should” look like for him.

The word that really bothers me now is the B-word, “better.” This word is often mumbled or proclaimed loudly by family or friends and it is meant to be something positive, something complimentary. “Wow, he’s gotten so much better!” “Ryan is a lot better than he was before.” “I thought he was better?” “He’s really doing better now.”

I know none of these phrases are said with malice, in fact it’s just the opposite, so please don’t be offended by my correction. But don’t you see what “better” implies? Better implies that before he was worse. Better means that before there was something wrong, broken or inferior about Ryan and now he is right, “fixed,” “normal.” “Better” to the observer means Ryan is conforming in a way that suits them. In a way the neurotypical world expects him to behave. In a way that more often than not, makes him “look better,” but may not make him feel better.

I realize Ryan has to understand the expectations society places on all of us, but, I also recognize that many of those expectations may not fit his neurodiverse way of interpreting and fitting into this world. So “better” is a b-word we really should shy away from.

I’m not trying to take away from how hard Ryan works to understand and comply with the norms of the neurotypical world, especially when those norms may make him feel like he’s stepping outside of his own skin. And I’m not trying to be unappreciative of well-meaning loved ones who recognize how hard he has worked. What I’m saying is that Ryan, or any other autistic person, shouldn’t have to work so hard just so those around them see them as “better.”

Words matter, so please choose them wisely.

Originally published: January 12, 2020
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