The discussions you’ll find about autism in the wilds of the internet may shock and confuse you. Fights about autism-related terminology and therapies can be extreme and intense — even though all the people weighing in want what’s best for autistic people.
Here’s a primer on some of those terms:
‘Autistic person’ vs. ‘person who has autism’ or ‘person with autism’
The question of whether to use “identity-first language” or “person-first language” when discussing autism has been debated for years. Many adults on the autism spectrum prefer to be described by the identifying adjective “autistic” — as in, an “autistic person” rather than a “person with autism” or a “person who has autism.”
“You can’t remove autism from you,” explained Amanda Seigler, 39, an autistic mom of autistic children in Lake Worth, Florida. “When you say someone ‘has’ something, you give the indication it can be removed.”
Meanwhile, parents, therapists and others who prefer person-first language say they want to value individuals by putting them first, not their condition. You can find a thoughtful discussion about this question of language here.
(The official style of The Associated Press and TODAY.com is to use "person-first" language, unless a source specifies otherwise.)
‘Disabled’ vs. ‘special needs’
Many autistic adults view it as infantilizing and euphemistic to describe their needs as “special.” Instead, they prefer the term “disabled” on the grounds that it does not gloss over their struggles.
“‘Disabled’ is not a dirty word,” Seigler said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
That said, the term “special” isn’t going anywhere. For instance, many children on the autism spectrum participate in “special education” programs in public schools. When in doubt about how to describe someone, consider citing the disability in question with specificity and clarity.
‘High-functioning’ and other functioning labels
It’s common to hear the term “high-functioning autism,” but many people — including those described as “high-functioning” — view it as offensive.
“People say to me, ‘Kerry, you have autism? But you’re so high-functioning,’” said Kerry Magro, 33, a disability advocate, public speaker and author who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. “On an everyday basis, I go through sensory challenges that would be considered ‘low-functioning.’ Calling me ‘high-functioning’ basically demeans the real need I have for certain services and supports.”
The National Center on Disability and Journalism recommends avoiding functioning labels altogether. Instead, describe a person’s abilities and challenges with specificity.
The term “Asperger’s syndrome” was long used to describe a “higher-functioning” or “less severe” manifestation of autism spectrum disorder; today, it is no longer classified as a medical diagnosis on its own. The term also has fallen out of favor for another reason: In recent years it came to light that Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger apparently colluded with Nazis and collaborated in the deaths of “genetically inferior” children.
“If Asperger were alive today, he’d be considered a war criminal,” said John Elder Robison, 64, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 40 and who helps spearhead neurodiversity initiatives at the College of William & Mary and Landmark College. “Asperger was not a friend of the autism community.”
Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy
Some of the most heated autism-related discussions online swirl around applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, the longest-standing therapy for children on the autism spectrum. Parents and therapists who value this therapeutic approach say it teaches valuable safety, communication and life skills. Many autistic adults — especially those who have painful ABA memories from their childhoods — describe the approach as “normalization” or “conversion” therapy that leads autistic people to mask their true identities. A thoughtful discussion of ABA can be found here.
Autism Awareness Month, Autism Acceptance Month and World Autism Month
For decades, the month of April was designated “Autism Awareness Month” — but many autistic self-advocates prefer to call it “Autism Acceptance Month” instead.
“It’s not that awareness isn’t important,” Magro said. “It’s just that as a lot of kids with autism are becoming adults, they don’t necessarily need awareness. They need acceptance. They need employment opportunities. ... They want a shot, and they want people to take a chance on them.”
Another name for April that has grown in popularity is “World Autism Month.” “I’m fine with that one too,” Magro noted.
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