Most adults on the spectrum prefer to be called autistic, rather than a person with autism or a person who has autism. The general consensus is that autism is not a separable entity. To be “with” something or to “have” something implies that we might somehow be able to rid ourselves of that thing and still be the same person, much like someone who has been cured of a physical illness.
I have always been autistic and always will be. If I was not autistic, I would be a completely different person. My autistic neurology affects how I experience the world and how the world experiences me. I am autistic. This feels very simple and logical to me.
It is not, however, always as simple for others. I’ve noticed that a lot of people in the autism community (which is different from the Autistic community) find the use of autistic as a label offensive or at least uncomfortable. The primary argument is that “autism doesn’t define” the person that they are reluctant to call autistic (often a family member).
Inherent in that argument is the belief that autism is a negative attribute. Why else would someone be averse to being “defined” by a trait? Would we say, “don’t call Tommy intelligent because his intelligence doesn’t define him” or “don’t call Katie blue-eyed because her eye color doesn’t define her.”
Positive or neutral labels are rarely challenged. Smart. Beautiful. Man. Woman. Right-handed. Left-handed. Blonde. Brunette. Few people will object if you refer to yourself or someone else by these labels. No one will tell you to call yourself a person with beauty or a person who has right-handedness.
So why the controversy over autistic? Perhaps because autism still carries so many negative connotations. We are in the processing of reclaiming autism and autistic, but we’re not quite there yet.
Reclaiming (or reappropriation) is the act of taking back a word that has been used as a pejorative. When a group adopts the use of a word that has been used to demean them, they diminish or subvert the power of that word as a weapon.
Queer and gay are words that many people consider to have been successfully reclaimed. Gay, once used primarily as an insult, has become a preferred label. Queer is still in the process of being reclaimed, but well on its way. Geek and nerd, insults a generation ago, are now common self-descriptors.
I find it interesting that there is so little discussion of autistic as a reclaimed word. It certainly fits the definition.
Autistic has been and is still used in a derogatory way. It could even be argued that it’s “the new R word.” That’s so autistic and are you autistic? have become common put downs in certain gaming and internet circles.
To be reclaimed, a word first must have been used in a way that is derogatory to the group it describes. Autistic, then, is ripe for reclaiming. And I would argue that not only does it need to be reclaimed to take away its power as a slur, it needs to be reclaimed by autistic adults with the goal of redefining it in the public’s imagination.
Even before it became an outright slur, autistic (and autism) had negative connotations. For many people, autistic conjures up the negative, doom and gloom stereotypes of ASD and little more. By reclaiming autistic, by using it as a symbol of identity and pride, we can broaden public perception of what it means to be autistic.
Happy Autistics Speaking Day!