Saturday, 2 April 2011

Say what? The terminology of the autism spectrum


Aspie.  Aspergian.  Spergy.  Autie.  Autist.

Autistic person. Person with autism.

Can we get some standardisation going on here, people?!

Any niche has its own specialised jargon, and autism's no different. But autism's complicated.

"Autistic person" and "person with autism" aren't just two different ways of saying the same thing. The latter - person first language - is a means of emphasising that the person you're talking about is a person, not just a medical history on legs. A lot of social workerey types love it, and when I was working in the media it was the terminology we had to use.

But many disabled people - not just in the neurodiversity movement, but in wider disability circles as well - don't like it at all.  They see it as an attempt to erase an important part of who they are, and reduce an essential part of their identity to an optional bolt-on extra.  It's like telling me I have to call myself a "person with Australian citizenship", because by calling myself "Australian" I'm letting my nationality define me.  Of course it bloody does.  And so does being an Aspie.


There are a also a rich variety of slang words to describe people on the spectrum.  I personally don't mind "Aspie", but feelings about the term are fairly mixed.  Some people feel it's a bit cutesy, or don't like the way it appears to distance Aspergers from the rest of the autism spectrum . I've seen "Aspergian" used too, and very occasionally "Spergy".  There's at least one person who prefers "Asp".  Then there's Autist, Autie, Spectrumite, and no doubt dozens I've missed.

"Neurodiverse" is a collective term for people whose neurology differs from the standard.  It encompasses not just the autism spectrum but seizure disorders, ADHD and related conditions, dyslexia, acquired brain injury, and anything else that affects the layout of your upstairs rooms.  But a person can't be "neurodiverse" or a "neurodiversist".  The point of diversity is that it encompasses a whole bunch of different ways of being.  One person can't be diverse, any more than a slice of tomato can be a sandwich.

The final say in who gets called what should always rest with the individual concerned. They get to decide if they identify as Aspie or Spergy or Autist or headcrip or a person with Aspergers. It's nobody else's business but theirs.

Quite a few times, I've seen online discussion about autism get derailed when someone starts telling someone else what they're 'supposed' to call themselves. I've found it's usually an indication that they're not really listening, and that continuing the conversation's probably a waste of time. If they won't even respect the way you choose to describe yourself, can you really expect them to listen to or respect your point of view?