Professional language surrounding autism

I have spent a lot of time reading about the link between autism and addiction (some may call it a special interest typical of someone on the spectrum), and one thing I’ve noticed is that the language used by professionals, especially scientists, is particularly problematic when it comes to autism. The language used often describes us as broken and malfunctioning, while many autistic people, including some autistic academics that i have spoken to, would argue that autism is simply a different way of being rather than some kind of illness (I will leave the discussion of autism as a disability for another time).

Professional discussions of autism tend to describe how parts of the brain ‘malfunction’ in autism, leading to ‘maladapted’ behaviours. This language seems to be used largely by neurotypical experts, and leads to issues for autism acceptance. The language used by professionals is important, it frames how the world views us as autistic individuals. When professionals describe autistic people as broken or malfunctioning, the world hears a story of incomplete individuals, suffering from a terrible blight.

An example of how this plays out is the harmful quack therapies that many autistic people are subjected to, such as ABA and MMS. These therapies rely on people’s fear of autism to sell their dangerous and frankly abusive treatment models. Clinical descriptions of ‘misfiring’ neurons tell parents that something is wrong with their child, something that needs to be fixed. Of course autism isn’t something to be fixed, it is not cancer, no treatment, no matter how aggressive, will ‘cure’ the autistic person being treated. Thus there is no justification for such treatments. However, the language currently used by professionals appears to justify such treatments to some parents and carers.

Professionals working on the subject of autism (and neurodivergence in general) need to be more careful about the language they use, i have no doubt that for the most part, they intend no harm, but in the language they use they indirectly inflict harm on autistic people all around the world. In my opinion, this highlights the need for a two-way conversation between autistic people and researchers in the field of autism.

It’s time for professionals to think more carefully about how they describe the subjects of their research. Likewise, autistic people, especially those in academia, need to stand up and be heard when it comes to how the world describes our neurotype. Words are powerful, it is up to us as members of society to use them responsibly.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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