On Autism and Intelligence: Language and Advocacy

This series is an examination of the concept of intelligence and what it means within autistic culture, in education, in social perception, and in individuals. Even mentioning the word “intelligence” can be a trigger for many people, and we all have very different internal definitions for what that word means.

My objective is to provide a framework for what intelligence means and explain some of the issues surrounding autistic processing in order to open a conversation and establish a common understanding of the complicated issues surrounding autistic ability.

Autistic Advocacy and Culture on IQ

All advocacy and activist circles tend to have their own internal language that is so dramatically different from the language of the mainstream, it can be difficult for an outsider to even interact without being corrected for language usage every other sentence.

For this reason, people who want to engage with advocacy work often have a hard time joining with the communities they want to support as an ally.

I’ve been an activist for twenty years and have worked with many intersections of social justice movements, and I believe that this language divide is most pronounced in disability communities.

The language divide deepens around autism and is so pronounced that there is even an “autism community” and an “autistic community.” These are two totally different universes.

The autism community consists mostly of parents and family members of an autistic person, researchers/academics, and support service workers (teachers, therapists, nonprofit workers, etc.), whereas the autistic community consists of autistic people themselves and some very dedicated allies who are committed to honoring and centering the voices of autistic people.

Another difference in autistic advocacy is that this is the only intersection of activism where it is totally socially acceptable to completely ignore the preferences and voices of the community that is supposed to benefit from that advocacy.

Despite the near-complete consensus from the adult autistic community, we aren’t even given the allowance to be identified the way we prefer. We are written off as a “small-but-vocal minority” and treated like we are extremists for having opinions or simply for asking to participate in decision-making that directly affects us and our children.

For that reason, language matters a lot to autistic people. It’s the first hurdle to acceptance.

Language Wars

As a very brief introduction, I’ll list a few of the things that uninitiated-but-well-intentioned outsiders might say that will hurt, anger, or deeply offend many in the autistic community:

1. Person with autism: Overwhelmingly, most autistics prefer to be called “autistic,” but best practices in cultural competence generally push the rhetoric that language should be person-first to emphasize that someone is more than their disability; however, autistic people have a brain that is substantially different from most people, and they feel that autism does define them.

It is not like having diabetes or asthma. It’s not even like having arms, or legs, or eyes. If you removed someone’s arms, legs, and eyes, and cured their asthma and diabetes, their core self would remain. But removing autism would be to remove the brain.

2. Disability: For most of the world, the word “disability” means something different than what it does in disability communities. Most people see it as being equated with not having potential or not being able to do most things.

In disability circles, it simply means that a person has a need and a right to accommodations because the world is not designed for them. It means that they require support or reasonable adjustments to environments, not that they are useless, incapable of achieving, or less human.

Refusing to admit or verbalize when a person has a disability is undermining a core facet of their existence. It also fails to acknowledge that they cannot do everything that people without a disability can do– or that they can’t do it the same way.

With invisible disability, this is even more relevant. There are not many people who would berate a person born with no legs for not walking because it is undeniable that they will need accommodations for mobility. Invisible disability is as real and as disabling as being born with no legs, but non-disabled often people fail to acknowledge barriers they can’t see.

3. Normal: People often try to downplay or dismiss disabilities or autistic experiences as “normal.” To abled people, this is a compliment. It’s a compliment to say, “You’re the same as everyone else.”

But to autistic people, this is a denial of their truth and not acknowledging the struggles– or the strengths– that come from being so different. There are lots of euphemisms that are not acceptable in disability circles, like “differently-abled,” “handicapable,” and “special.”

Just say “disabled.” It’s not an insult. If you think it’s an insult, you need to work on your own perceptions.

4. High/low functioning: Function labels are offensive for many reasons, and especially in the autistic community. Regarding someone as “high functioning” is a refusal to see how profound their struggles can be.

“High functioning” is essentially bragging on someone for being able to take tremendous amounts of suffering and injustice and keep quiet about it. “Low functioning” reduces a person to what they cannot do or characterizes a human based on their weaknesses and needs for accommodation and support.

If you need to characterize an autistic person, you could start with saying what they like to do, what their favorite shows to watch or hobbies to engage are, what their sense of humor is like, etc. If it is absolutely relevant to describe them according to their disability, then explain their “support needs,” not their “function level.”

With autism especially, the degree to how well someone functions is largely depending on the social context where an autistic person exists. If a workplace fails to make sensory accommodations, the most skilled and talented employee in the workforce may be completely unable to work there at all.

If co-workers don’t understand and accept autistic behavior and traits, then that will impact the autistic person’s “function.”


Few words carry as much emotional connotation in the autistic community as “intelligence.” One of the first things that people might try to say when they describe an autistic person is, “Oh, they’re very intelligent.”

Even mentioning IQ in autistic circles without some swear words for qualifiers is likely to result in a chorus of accusations of elitism and ableism– and with good reason. The notion of intelligence is every bit as subjective and context-dependent as beauty, especially for autistic people.

Does intelligence exist? And if so, what is it, and what does it mean? Can it be measured?

Many autistic people, myself included, have had a lifetime of being called “gifted,” “brilliant,” “genius,” in about equal frequency to “stupid,” “idiot,” and “slow.”

Yes, intelligence exists in many forms. There are probably thousands of ways a person can demonstrate intelligence; however, what is typically meant by someone who references “intelligence” is “generally good at all things, and thus doesn’t need or deserve accommodations.”

Intelligence as a concept isn’t inherently ableist, but the notion of intelligence being one flat, defined measure absolutely is. Read more about this in part two of this series, linked at the bottom.

Just last week, I had comments on an article praising what a “gifted writer” I was. In the same day, someone else commented that I and people like me were “r#tards” who couldn’t even understand that we don’t make sense or know what we’re talking about.

A Common Tongue

Before autistic adults are going to have good-faith conversations with people about what it means to be autistic, those people have to agree to speak the native language and meet autistic people on their turf.

There are almost no spaces in the world that are safe for autistic people, and those few spaces are sacred. Outsiders invited into this space should take their proverbial shoes off at the door and come ready to learn and observe the customs.

The instant someone tells an autistic person to “not be so offended over words,” they’ve communicated to the autistic person that they’re not even willing to make a few basic language adjustments in order to communicate respectfully. They’ve established that they are more interested in their own convenience, and that they didn’t come to listen. They came to invalidate.

All autistic people do a lot of work every time we communicate with non-autistics trying to adjust to make others more comfortable with their differences. People unwilling to even agree to use those words agreed on by the majority of autistics are not going to be willing to learn and engage in good faith.

In a way, beyond the very rational and logical reasons that these language adjustments benefit autistics, they serve as a screening measure. They’re protective. They save autistic people from needing to go twelve rounds with manipulative people who aren’t in a place to meet on common ground.

Click here to go to part 2 of this series, on measuring measuring intelligence.

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2 Responses

  1. Very timely. Language plays an incredibly important role in advocacy and in society in general. You pick up on a number of words with specific cultural baggage. I am working on an initial set of entries for a dictionary that provides us with a language for diagnosing specific aspects of our sick society and for co-designing new social operating models. The idea is to catalyse an autistic community project that all autistic people can contribute to. The more we make use of a shared language, the stronger our community will be.

    Toxic words can exposed and rendered less powerful by only ever using them within quotation marks, and by never using them without a reference or footnote that exposes the implied or hidden semantics. In this context consistency in the use of words and language is an autistic superpower than can be deployed very effectively.

  2. “Another difference in autistic advocacy is that this is the only intersection of activism where it is totally socially acceptable to completely ignore the preferences and voices of the community that is supposed to benefit from that advocacy.” Oh wow! I didn’t realize we’re the ONLY ones! It’s horrifically maddening and triggering!

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