“Autistic” is Not a Bad Word

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

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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4 Responses

  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. Great post, Katelyn.

    What I long for is the day that neurotypical awareness of the DIFFERENT requirements of autistic members of society reaches such a level that it is just natural, and ingrained, to think about the possibility that any person you are interacting with at any time MIGHT be autistic, and to deal with them in such a way that your message is equally accessible to them, whether they are or not.

    When I was training to be a teacher, we had to attend a session on autism awareness.

    The presentation consisted of a speaker with a PowerPoint. The powerpoint slides typically had a wall of text, and an embedded video playing so you had to either ignore the text, or try to listen and read at the same time (although they were generally taken away before you COULD read all of the text, never mind take any meaningful notes) … and all the while the video was playing, the speaker then spoke OVER the video. So now there were two spoken narratives to try to follow simultaneously AND that wall of text.

    And to cap it all … the presentation took place in a room with the window open, and a pneumatic drill hammering away immediately outside. It was sensory overload city!

    At the end of the presentation I went to see the presenter and explain to them that the session hadn’t been very well designed to meet the needs of anyone in the audience who actually WAS autistic – perhaps undiagnosed, or only recently diagnosed like me. But I think the presenter was probably too “aware” to take my comments on board. All they did was to apologise for the drill and say there was nothing they could do about it. No, there wasn’t. But there was PLENTY they could do about the style of their presentation. Like not moving on from a slide before we could read it (that’s why they put it up there, right? They wanted us to read it!) … not putting a video to play while we were trying to read it … and not talking over the video which was talking over our attempts to read the text they had chosen to put on their slides …

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