I really should not have to write this.
It should be obvious to anybody who reads the title that using “autistic” as a slur is despicable behavior. This is as clear as it gets to all of you who will likely read this. I’m not expecting to make many converts among my friends and family. And honestly I’m not writing about this in an effort to convince anybody.
But I keep continually seeing the name of my neurological condition used as a slur. This happens over and over again along with the term “hugbox” coined by the great Dr. Temple Grandin used in a derogatory fashion. These are concepts that hold great weight to me. My mental state isn’t something to mock in my opinion. And yet it is.
So what does “autistic” mean when it’s used as a slur? It’s almost always used to drag down people who act in opposition to proper social guidelines. These people show limited awareness about how the world works. They’re crude at times it’s uncalled for. The term connotes behavior that is to be abhorred by all “right thinkingf” people.
And in fact the behavior tarred with the word usually is atrocious. Misogyny and lewd sexual comments are indisputably awful. It’s in poor taste and does clearly reflect poor social skills. I won’t argue that point.
But here’s the issue: poor social skills have become conflated with autism in the public mind. That’s usually the first thing people point to for us. It’s what gets repeated as a bullet point. As a result, autism gets reduced down over time to just that one symptom. And once it becomes seen as one small thing, it becomes effortless to reduce it to an insult.
So let me be clear: autism is not just poor social skills. Oh those are there, but it’s infinitely more complex than that. There are countless other symptoms that comprise the disorder, none of which we all have. But reducing autism down to this one symptom is extremely unfair.
Furthermore, most of us by the time we graduate high school know enough not to be gross or rude. If we don’t then we’ve been failed by our parents and teachers. In truth many of us watch our words with intense caution and are the fastest to apologize when we do err. We’re usually more self absorbed and single minded when we miss social cues anyway.
Why does this matter? That has to be asked. I mean, the people using ableist slurs aren’t exactly the finest of folks anyway usually. When they’re not awful, they’re polite when called out. When they’re awful, they keep assuming neurology is a reason to mock a person along with other conditions innate in a person.
Here’s why? Because well meaning neurotypicals who want to do right by us start feeling hesitant to call us autistic. The word starts to sound tainted in their eyes. It winds up making it hard for people who are trying to help. The simple truth is autistic is a fine, accurate term. It’s all people need to use to describe us. But sadly for so many it sounds “wrong” to use.
This is the effect of a slur. The continual connotation that a term, especially the correct term to describe a person, is lesser hurts us. I’ve referred to being autistic as having a different operating system than most and I stand by that image. That’s what we’re fighting for: equal but different. But every day we must continually fight for that dream. This isn’t right.
Language matters. I know we’re having a cultural debate about how much we should restrict free speech. We’re having this debate as people previously denied voices in the discussion slowly gain them. It’s a vital discussion to listen to and participate in.
In time I have to believe this will changed. Retarded has already gained the status of at least a minor word to avoid. Autistic is on that list too. In time we’ll get our voices heard more clearly and this won’t be an issue.
But for the time being, stick to a-hole for crude behavior. Slurs relating to feces or such orifices will NEVER be politically incorrect.