a woman listening to workplace gossip trying to hear the word "autistic" because people whisper it like it's a shameful insult

“Autistic” is Not a Bad Word4 min read

A cer­tain pat­tern about our cul­ture and its stigma­ti­za­tion of dis­abil­i­ties was revealed to me the other day– in a very shocking and very hum­bling sit­u­a­tion.

I was at work, minding my own busi­ness when I over­heard the con­ver­sa­tion a few of my coworkers were having at our work sta­tion.

One of them said she had a funny joke to tell the others, but that it wouldn’t be work-appropriate, and then she remem­bered who told the joke to her in the first place.

“Oh, but he’s autistic.” She said, her eyes slightly shifting down­ward, as if in shame.

She didn’t say the phrase in the same volume or the same manner of speech that she had been speaking, which was much louder than I would speak at any given time.

No, she let out the “autistic” at a barely-heard whisper.

My other coworkers looked at her with pity, and one of them piped up with how she loves working with autistic kids because they’re fun to be around.

I didn’t hear the rest of the con­ver­sa­tion, as I had walked away as quickly as I could to avoid let­ting them see the tears forming in my eyes.

The con­ver­sa­tion, though unin­ten­tional, wounded me. None of my coworkers know that I’m autistic. I’ve only been there for a week, and I saw no need to bring any of that up at this point.

But if they had known, I doubt any­thing would have changed.

Our cul­ture has it ingrained throughout that talking about dis­abil­i­ties, espe­cially hidden ones, is seen as taboo. 

Even men­tioning the strug­gles of a child or loved one will get you pitied looks and sor­rowful words, and man­ner­isms akin to learning about a life-threatening ill­ness. 

Children, and some­times even adults, throw the word around to insult their peers and their friends, not having a clue as to what the word means and what it all entails to be that.

Saying someone is autistic, when they are autistic, is viewed as inap­pro­priate. Those who believe they have some knowl­edge about autism will usu­ally quiet these people by saying it’s respectful to refer to autistic people as “on the spec­trum.”

These pat­terns have lead me to the con­clu­sion that our cul­ture views autistic and autism as bad words. Words become harmful when they are twisted to hurt others. So many words that once had a pos­i­tive meaning now are used in ways they weren’t intended to be used. 

Unfortunately, “autistic” has become one of these words. You say “autism” in any set­ting, either in a school or in public, and most people’s reac­tions are neg­a­tive. The few that aren’t are infan­tilizing and pitying– and even offen­sive, to say the least– are dis­mis­sive.

“Oh, you’re just like everyone else.”

These stereo­types and reac­tions are so incred­ibly toxic for autistic people. I can’t even begin to describe how much. Seeing autism as a ter­rible thing that should bring about pitied glances and whis­pers only harms autistic people. 

Autistic people are human.

Autistic adults are human.

Autistic kids are human.

Treating the word “autism” like it’s meant to be whis­pered and spoken at a low volume makes autistic people think our opin­ions aren’t valued. It makes us think that our entire exis­tence is seen as taboo, espe­cially when people throw around our diag­nosis as a dart, aimed to hurt those who see autism as a learning dis­ability– which it isn’t. And learning dis­abil­i­ties do not make people less human, either.

Feeling pity when someone opens up about their diag­nosis or their loved one’s diag­nosis of some­thing so fun­da­mental that it explains their entire way of being and living only cre­ates a gap between the two of you because of your inability to take them seri­ously.

So take an autistic adult’s advice, who has been through the pity and the insults, and has been the sub­ject of ter­rible con­ver­sa­tions about my diag­nosis,

and realize that saying people are autistic,

when they are autistic,

should be seen as a good thing.

Saying people are autistic,

when they are not autistic,

should be seen as a very neg­a­tive and hurtful thing that needs to stop.

This con­tin­u­ally feeds into the stereo­type that being autistic is some­thing to be ashamed of, which it isn’t.

Do autistic people struggle in a world that wasn’t built for us? Absolutely.

But instead of making our lives more dif­fi­cult by either not addressing autism or using it as a weapon, listen to us. Take our advice seri­ously, espe­cially when it comes to the neg­a­tivity our cul­ture cre­ates when it comes to char­ac­ter­izing being autistic.

Our exis­tence and expe­ri­ences were not meant to be snuffed out simply because we are what the world does not under­stand.

Instead of fol­lowing cul­ture and painting our exis­tence as a neg­a­tive, sor­rowful thing, listen to our sto­ries. Listen to our com­plaints.

You’ll thank us later.

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  1. Acknowledging Autisum as a fact of a per­sons being should not carry any impli­ca­tion. I wear glasses to cor­rect my vision and hearing aids to com­pen­sate for being nearly deaf. All of these are just part of being humans. Societies atti­tudes are changing slowly but they are changing.

  2. Interesting. In my per­sonal expe­ri­ence, the word “autistic” has never been whis­pered at me, but always either screamed in my face as a bul­lying insult by neu­rotyp­i­cals, or sneered hate­fully at me by ing­no­rant neu­rotyp­ical ther­a­pists trying to block me from receiving a cor­rect diag­nosis (as in “you can’t be autistic because autis­tics are only children/only boys/all non­verbal”, etc.)

  3. I can’t wait for the day when autism is seen as some­thing ordi­nary.

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