Why Words Matter: Inside the Mind of Autism

An interesting article has been posted over at ShiftJournal.com by Amy Sequenzia, who has described herself as a non-speaking autistic and self advocate. In her post entitled "Non-speaking, ‘low-functioning,’" Amy takes issue with the stereotypes and labels that are often assigned to those with autism, particularly those who do not have the ability to speak. Her article begins as follows:

"I am autistic, non-speaking. I am also labeled “low-functioning”. This label is a pre-judgment based on what I cannot do. It makes people look at me with pity instead of trying to get to know me, listen to my ideas.

I am a self-advocate and I can type my thoughts. But, at the moment I show up with my communication device and an aide, my credibility, in the eyes of most neurotypical people, is diminished…"

The term "low-functioning" has become such a common part of the autism community’s vocabulary, it’s safe to say that only a handful have
given thought to how its application can affect others. But as Amy demonstrates, word choice does matter and can often profoundly affect the very individuals we are professing to help.

I recall the first time another parent corrected me when I used the term "autistic child" when describing a little boy with autism. This mother pointed out that the proper description should be "a child with autism," because the person should always come before the disorder.

I remember at the time thinking this was just an overly-sensitive, politically correct observation. However, as the years have gone by, I’ve learned that it’s important how we describe individuals with autism because ultimately, those definitions are what shape the perceptions of the general public. And once stereotypes set in, they are almost impossible to undo. 

Case in point, Amy continues with the following:

"All the labels given to us only help to make myths seem like the reality. By classifying non-speaking autistic as low-functioning, one is lowering expectations for the autistic individual. He or she is not given a chance to express him/herself and maybe show hidden abilities."

I think many of us have much to learn from Amy and others like her. Those with autism are not some pitiable statistics to be discounted or marginalized, but rather brilliant, beautiful individuals who just happen to experience the world a little differently than most.

To read the entire article by Amy Sequenzia, click