Last year I did a level 2 course about autism. I found it interesting, not least because of the discussions it sparked between me and my tutor. One of these was about “correct” terminology. In several of my answers, I referred to autistic people and was pulled up on this and told I should always refer to “people with autism” and never “autistic people”.
When I mentioned this to my husband, who is autistic himself, he was somewhat less than impressed! When he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and after he’d had time to get his head round it, we had a conversation about the language he wanted to use. He’s always been very clear that he is autistic, he doesn’t have autism. He says being autistic is the same as being intelligent and being friendly – it’s all part of his personality, whereas he feels having autism is like having a cold or having measles and makes it sound like an illness and also like something that’s just temporary.
His views on “autistic person” vs “person with autism” are similar. His opinion is that “with autism” makes it sound like something that’s completely separate from him rather than something that contributes to making him who he is. He says people would always talk about a generous person and a friendly person, but never “a person with generosity” or “a person with friendliness”, so by the same token he says he is an autistic person and not a person with autism.
My tutor took these comments on board and passed them on to the people who had written the course, but the response was a very disappointing, “we have no plans to change” – even though the National Autistic Society uses “autistic people” because this is what the majority of the people they represent prefer. The course advocates a person-centred approach throughout but it seems that this does not stretch to asking the autistic community how they prefer to refer to themselves!
As a nation, we are a paradox. On the one hand we are obsessed with not offending people and our language is becoming ever more restricted so as not to offend people. On the other hand, we don’t seem to care enough to ask the people concerned how they feel about it!
Another example of this is the use of “hearing impaired” and “visually impaired”.
Hearing impaired is often seen as the correct, PC, non-offensive way to refer to the Deaf community – despite the fact that most of them find the term hearing impaired offensive. To them, the term “impaired” suggests faulty or substandard – and how can that not that not be offensive?
I asked a friend of mine who is blind what she thought of the term “visually impaired”. She said she didn’t find it offensive, but felt that if people were going to use it, it ought to be applied to everyone who doesn’t have perfect vision – including all those of us who wear glasses or contact lenses, or who screw our eyes up when trying to focus on something close up!
I think above all the most important thing to remember is that everyone is different. There is no one size fits all way to refer to people that everyone will be happy with. We should stop trying to be so politically correct if that means making decisions on behalf of another person about what may or may not offend them without finding out what they really think. If you only take one message away from reading this post I’d like it to be this: just ask! Ask people what they want. Ask people how they prefer to refer to themselves. Ask each individual what he, or she, or they find offensive and make sure that you use a term that the particular individual you are talking to finds acceptable.