Stranger: “Excuse me, I see your son is flapping his arms. Does he have autism?”
Me: “He’s actually quite happy and excited at the moment. I hope you’ve found something to be happy about today as well.”
I may be overreacting, but I’m starting to get annoyed when people ask whether someone has autism. The way I see it, our social identity is generally based on how others view us and the labels they assign to us. So when we refer to a “child with autism,” this can lead others to regard autism as something bad that happens to people or that afflicts them, such as an illness or disease, and also suggests that it’s something that can be cured or fixed.
If you don’t believe this happens, take a look at this feature from CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/autism-9-warning-signs-every-parent-should-know/. Actually, don’t even click on the link. It’s horrible. These are the first two sentences: “Parents fear autism, and rightly so. The mysterious brain disorder devastates a child’s ability to speak and interact with others.”
I find this so, so, so, so offensive.
Given that autism is a neurological difference, it’s not something that can be taken away or healed. As such, there is no such thing as a “child with autism,” but instead an autistic child. It’s not something you have, but something you are. When I read media reports such as the CBS feature referenced above, I get quite frustrated as I think they only contribute further to the exclusion and objectification of autistic people.
Although the use of “autistic” still contributes to identity, the meaning is subject to change. This emphasis recognizes that language not only shapes how we view the world, but also constructs it for us. Just as our cultural understanding of blackness or femininity changes continually, so, too, can our understanding of autism adapt over time. The signifier “autistic” can also contribute to the self-identity of autistic people, as autism is part of who they are as opposed to something they have.
As someone who is neurotypical (I think), I obviously can’t speak for autistic people, but I do want to ensure I love and value my son for who he is without trying to turn him into someone he isn’t. As my friend Rhonda noted the other week, it’s time we move away from autism awareness and embrace autism acceptance instead.