Three clear honey jars of different shades from light to dark.

Label Jars, Not People

One of my students, E, asked me to help him write a letter to his brother who was at sleep away camp for the month. For most of his life, until he started typing, E was identified as a “low-functioning autistic.”

He spent years listening to people applying different labels to describe him, labels that everyone had to re-evaluate after he began typing to communicate and demonstrating his intelligence in ways no one had previously assumed were possible.

E’s older brother is also autistic. He self-identifies as having Asperger’s and distinguishes this from his brother’s autism. Today, E tackled this issue head on.  Here is part of his letter to his brother:

         When you ask what do autistic kids want, do you want different things

         than I want? Do we wonder about the same things? We both excel at

         different strengths, but you say Asperger’s for you and autism for me.

         Awareness presents one picture of autism even though we are so dissimilar.

         We need to stop using labels and identify each other as intelligent humans.

         Like my friend J’s favorite shirt says, “Label jars, not people.” Eager indeed to

         hear your thoughts on this issue.

E’s letter hits the nail on the head. Seeing individuals as unique, intelligent humans is how we will allow acceptance to flourish in society. In a comic that helps break down this dichotomy of “low functioning” and “high functioning,” Rebecca Burgess helps to redefine the autism spectrum to show that “not every autistic person acts the same way, and we are all capable of varying strengths and weaknesses.”

And isn’t that the truth for us all? I can run or bike with fair competence, maybe even a level of skill, but put me on a softball team or in any other sport that requires hand-eye coordination, and I become an unmitigated klutz. Ask my uber-coordinated, basketball hotshot husband to run a 10K, and he’ll tell you it’s not his thing. Yet, we both consider ourselves athletic. Intelligence should be considered in the same way.

TASH announced a new intern, Madison Essig, who was the first student with a developmental disability to graduate from DC Public Schools with a diploma after being included with her classmates. Madison (who graduated with honors, no less!) captured this sentiment perfectly when she told a local news channel, “Special Ed kids should not be separated. They can interact with the whole student body.”

Let’s allow Madison’s success and E’s wise-beyond-his-years questions for his brother be our reminder to look past surface identification to all the valuable things hidden inside each other.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from an article at Reach Every Voice, with participation from all parties. The original can be viewed here.

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2 Comments


  1. I stopped referring to myself as an “aspie” or “person with Asperger syndrome” to show solidarity with autistics who are misperceived as “low-functioning.” They are really not so different from me.

    I see nothing wrong with people who do feel comfortable with those labels and I would not tell them what to do. There are valid reasons to like what you like. But if people are doing it to say “see, I am so different from those people with sever autism,” then I think that can hurt.

    Besides, people might perceive me as “high-functioning” when some of my impairments are borderline “severe.” You cannot see how much I have struggled, how many medications and supplements I take, or all the ways in which my life is limited. I deserve no less respect than the autistics who can do more than I can.

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