The Destigmatization of Autism through the Power of Speech and Words

The Destigmatization of Autism through the Power of Speech and Words

It is difficult to understand how much power lies in one’s words and how it can affect nearly everything. A simple word or phrase can shape the world’s perspective, can manipulate how an individual or group of people sees themselves, and can perpetuate ideologies. Like many things in the world, language is a double-edged sword—it can either be used as a weapon to hurt or as a tool to help someone. It all depends on how certain words are composed and if you happen to  choose the right combination, different versions of the world will emerge from it, whether they be good or bad. Therefore, language is not simply descriptive but is also performative (Bottema-Beutel, 2021). The language used in autism research is a prime example of how words can influence how a group of people is viewed and treated in society. Often, the language used in research can further stigmatize and put into negative light those who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Whether it be intentionally or unintentionally, the certain diction that some autistic research utilizes continues to hurt and belittle the autistic community.

The term “autism” was introduced in 1911 by Eugen Bleuler as a symptom of the most severe case of schizophrenia. He described autistic thinking as having hallucinations and the creation of fantasies in order to replace undesirable realities (Evans, 2013). Although we now know that autism has no relation to hallucinations, this idea of autism persisted from the 1920s to the 1950s. In 1943, however, Leo Kanner began to change the meaning of autistic to someone who lacks interest in people and someone who needs sameness. As well as an individual who has a fascination with objects and a desire to be left alone. “Kanner-Type Autism” was soon coined as a form of autism that is completely debilitating to the individual — so much so that they are unable to function properly and independently.

Person-first language started to show its prevalence in the late 1960s to 1970s with those who had intellectual disorders (ID), and by the 1990s, the self-advocacy movement was established. At first, when person-first language was promoted, it was a way to endorse autistic people’s significance, but in today’s day and age, it proves to do more harm than good.

The notion of person-first language originated as a movement to put someone’s identity first before their diagnosis, whether it be a mental illness/disorder or an injury. Although it was intended to be a positive movement that emphasized that the individual was more than his/her illness or injury, it is seen today as a way to stigmatize and alienate autistic individuals. It also suggests that the person can be separated from autism, which is simply not true. One cannot simply separate themselves from something that is intrinsically part of them, such as skin color.

 In the medical model, autism has always been placed into the binary of either normal or abnormal, and has classified individuals as either “sick” or “healthy” and “disabled” or “non-disabled.” Often in research, autism is written as something highly undesirable and merely having it is equivalent to suffering as suggested with the phrase “suffering from autism.” Additionally, autistic people are wrongly described as being “emotionless” which is empirically false and only influences the public’s swayed perception of the autistic community. By saying that an autistic person is emotionless, it suggests that they lack an essential element that “makes us human” (Bottema-Beutel, 2021). Thus, by using this ableist  diction, it can create internalized negative beliefs within an autistic individual, cause underemployment, continue false stigmas, and increase marginalization.

In addition, although it is well-intended by some researchers to utilize person-first language, the application of it varies according to the severity of the condition. For instance, linguistically, most professionals and scholars have used person-first language to describe children who have developmental disabilities, and less so for those who have sensory and physical impairments (Gernsbacher, 2017). Using different languages for a certain group of people only further separates them and stigmatizes their condition. If using person-first language is to show support for the individuals in the autistic community by not excluding them, or “giving them special treatment,” then this sort of diction should be used not only for developmental disabilities but also for the less-stigmatized conditions such as physical and sensory disabilities.

Person-first language accentuates the message that everyone is a person first. This does not just apply to those with a disability but to each and every individual. This linguistic choice should be used whether someone has an ailment or not, and as the American Speech Hearing-Language Association suggests, “do the same for both positive and negative attributes” (Gernsbacher, 2017). This allows for equality and standardization and prevents division and biases.

Language is a powerful tool, and its effects are significant. What you say and how you say it can not only influence one person, but can change an entire community and even the world. It is difficult to choose the right words sometimes, but it is imperative to try and be better, especially if it can negatively impact someone. Utilizing the correct linguistic choices when it comes to talking to or about someone who has a form of a disability comes from education, and by communication to see what they prefer, whether it be person-first or identity-first language. Words undeniably have power, and hopefully, they can be better used to help destigmatize disorders such as autism. 

References

Bottema-Beutel, K., Kapp, S. K., Lester, J. N., Sasson, N. J., & Hand, B. N. (2021). Avoiding ableist language: Suggestions for autism researchers. Autism in Adulthood, 3(1), 18–29. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2020.0014 

Evans B. (2013). How autism became autism: The radical transformation of a central concept of child development in Britain. History of the human sciences, 26(3), 3–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695113484320

Gernsbacher, M. A. (2017). Editorial perspective: The use of person-first language in scholarly writing may accentuate stigma. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(7), 859–861. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12706 

Kenny, L., Hattersley, C., Molins, B., Buckley, C., Povey, C., & Pellicano, E. (2015). Which terms should be used to describe autism? perspectives from the UK autism community. Autism, 20(4), 442–462. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361315588200 

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