Why We Need to Start Treating “Autistic” As Another Language Instead of a Condition

Over the past few months, on my Facebook page, I have been really focusing on explaining autistic as a language that neurotypical people can learn (and vice versa).

The positive feedback this has received has helped me to understand that we need a true paradigm shift if we are ever to get away from toxic “therapies” such as ABA.

First, let’s just take a look at what applied behavior analysis (ABA) attempts to do at its most basic level: Seek out autistic behaviors, discourage them, and then replace those behaviors with neurotypical ones.

Here’s why this will never be effective even if the ABA therapist is the kindest, most compassionate individual on the planet who has absolutely no intention of being harmful or abusive to his/her student:

Autism is not a behavioral condition, It is another neurological language.

Dog/But – A Spanish Language Analogy

Let’s take a look at this from a learning a new language perspective for a minute. For example, if a person who speaks English wants to learn Spanish, they enroll in a Spanish language class.

When they get there, they learn the Spanish alphabet, words, basic phrases, etc. They also learn the “whys” of the way they are expected to speak in order to have effective communication with native Spanish speakers.

So, continuing with this analogy, let’s say a man named Eric is enrolled in a Spanish language class. Part of his learning will include how to say different words in Spanish, what they mean, how they are used in a sentence, and where to put emphasis on syllables, so the person hearing Eric speak will understand him and vice versa.

Now, let’s say Eric is being trained how to say the word “dog” in Spanish, but in a similar way that an autistic child is trained to speak neurotypical. In other words, Eric’s Spanish language class isn’t the typical instruction we’re used to; it’s designed like ABA.

The Spanish word for dog is “perro.” Now, the Spanish word for “but”–as in “however”– is also “pero,” but it’s one “r” instead of two, and the only way you can tell the difference between them is by a slight roll in the “r” when the word is spoken and from the context of the sentence.

This means if Eric is talking about his dog, he may say something like, “I like my dog. It is a beautiful dog,” in Spanish. However, if Eric isn’t taught context, meaning, and pronunciation in his Spanish language class, when he tries to say this sentence in Spanish, it could come out, “I like my but. It’s a beautiful but,” in Spanish.

Everyone around him may have a good laugh, but Eric won’t have the first clue what’s going on unless he is told.

(Now, the Spanish word for butt, as in rear end, is nalgas. Or, at least that’s the polite term. There are others. I figured you might want to know that to avoid further confusion.)

Anyway, if Eric is told he cannot use the word “dog,” and he must use “perro,” but he is not given any spelling, context, sentence use, or anything else and just told to use that word, he’s going to get it wrong, and he’ll have no understanding of why people are reacting to him the way they are when he goes out into the world and tries to use the word in a sentence.

If Language Classes Were Designed Like ABA

If an autistic child is in ABA training, that child is going to learn to do and not do certain things, say and not say certain things, but since they aren’t told the meaning and reasoning behind what they are doing/not doing and saying/not saying, they will be just like Eric trying to say “dog” in Spanish (if his Spanish language class was designed like ABA).

Sometimes, Eric will get it right. He’ll point to a canine and say “perro,” and it will be correct.

Other times, he’ll mention a dog that isn’t in the room and say he loves it, and it’s going to sound like he’s saying he loves his butt, because even though he was told the word itself, he was not given the correct spelling or context of the word or even told that there is another word in Spanish that sounds just like the one he is using for dog– only it means something completely different.

If his Spanish language class was designed like ABA, he would only be verbally told that “dog” is wrong and “perro” is right, and that’s what he is expected to say from now on.

That’s not enough information. Simply pointing to something and saying the word in the preferred language doesn’t create understanding.

Furthermore, having someone say the word or phrase because they are mimicking you in order to avoid punishment doesn’t indicate understanding, either. It only indicates that they don’t want to be punished.

A parrot can mimic. It doesn’t mean that if you had one, and its previous owner taught it to swear that when it swears at you, it’s suddenly taken a dislike to you or trying to be rude.

The parrot is just repeating what it was taught!

And, if you were an abusive person, and you smacked the parrot across the beak for “swearing at you,” it would have no idea why you just did something like that in response to it speaking, when you would usually reward it and give it treats when it did the exact same thing before.

We’re Not Parrots, We’re Not Dogs, We’re People Speaking Another Language

Now, just for clarification. I’m not saying that autistic people are parrots, dogs, or any other animal. Unfortunately, though, this is how we are being treated and trained by ABA.

This is why ABA is so ineffective even at its very core. Even if you take the abuse out of it for a second, the premise can’t work because all it’s doing is teaching a native autistic speaker to speak neurotypical, but without any other clues or context other than, “Say or do this, or you will be punished, or you won’t get a reward.”

That is not teaching, that is training. What needs to happen is teaching, and that goes for not just neurodivergent people, but neurotypical people, too.

The Ideal Classes for Autistic and Neurotypical People

If it were up to me, I would create classes for both autistic and neurotypical people. They would be like any other second language class. Autistic people would learn neurotypical, and neurotypical people would learn autistic.

Autistic classes would explain neurotypical emotions, facial expressions, tones of voice, responses, and all of the meaning and nuance behind these things. Neurotypical classes would explain neurodivergent emotions, facial expressions, tones of voice, responses, and all of the meaning and nuance behind these things.

Once these foundations were put into place, then, and only then, would both neurotypes be able to sit down with a teacher of the opposite neurotype to learn how to compromise and integrate the two languages.

In these new classes, instead of telling the autistic person to stop stimming, stimming would be completely acceptable and understood because neurotypical people would understand the important and in-depth meaning behind stimming.

Furthermore, instead of telling the neurotypical person to stop hinting instead of speaking directly, hinting would be completely acceptable and understood because the neurodiverse person would understand the important and in-depth meaning behind hinting.

Autistic and Non-autistic are Not “Conditions,” They’re Languages

Neurotypical people are the majority in this world, but if the roles were reversed, and neurotypical people were the minority, would any neurotypical person (or their child) want to be given rewards and punishments for stopping their natural behavior and trading it in for something completely foreign to them? No. The concept would be unthinkable!

Imagine if there were ABA-like classes for neurotypical children where they were punished for using facial expressions instead of words, or hinting at something instead of saying it directly, or speaking in metaphors instead of being literal. That would be pure torture and completely unfair!

And that’s exactly what ABA is for autistic people: pure torture and completely unfair.

Being autistic is not a condition. Being non-autistic is not a condition. They are two different neurological languages that both neurotypes can learn and understand given the correct tools and environment to do so.

Once we start framing our neurological differences as languages to be learned instead of deficits to be fixed, we will be well on our way to a happier, healthier, less-traumatized society.

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18 Responses

    1. This is a better way of putting it. You can’t teach a neurotypical to “speak” neurodivergent any more than you could get an Apple II to run Windows 10, and any attempt to do so would give them only an incomplete understanding at best. That goes for the “autistic classes” too- neurotypicals often act as if they barely understand their own languages, so why should we have to learn it when they haven’t done so themselves?

      1. I think, in classes like this, if they existed, would do wonders for teaching neurotypicals how they think because it would force them to put logic and reason into their words and actions. That would create a great deal of mindfulness and might even make a much better society overall.

  1. This is an AWESOME insight.

    I’m not sure I agree with the premise that neurotypical people CAN be taught to “speak neurodivergent” and vice versa … but even is I am right, the insight that this is what NEEDS TO BE ACHIEVED … rather than simply caning the neurodivergent for their “defiant act” of “being different” is a hugely valuable one.

    I have suffered all my life simply for “being different” … at the hands of people who ASSUMED that I was different because I CHOSE TO BE …. and they couldn’t understand why anyone would make such a choice … but given that they assumed I had, they assumed that I was equally able to choose not to be … and that therefore they were perfectly justified in persecuting me for this “choice” because I didn’t have to make it, and any time I didn’t want to be persecuted all I had to do was UNchoose to be different.

    Well, it ain’t like that, is it?

    But … I’ve never been able to explain it to them. This article, however, is a first and very valuable step down the road to that explanation that we all need.

    Thank you for writing it.

  2. I’m not sure that I agree with this. Autism IS a description of ‘behaviour. There are many many different reasons for being “autistic”. Also apart for the causes of autism, there is a very very wide range of behaviours, intelligence, abilities.
    Until ‘autism’ is no longer treated as a single mental or emotional disability , people with autism will suffer.
    High functioning people with Asperger’s can have great difficulty fitting in with unstreamed classes. But they come into their own when they get to higher Education establishments.
    There can also be greater problems with Asperger’s individuals in ‘lower socio-economic ‘ areas’, The do NOT fit in with the ‘Snob’ bourgeoisie classes either where it is important to do the ‘done thing’.

    Odd-bods with IQ. of 140+ need an education, milieu, job to suit their needs, When they find these, they become ‘neurotypical’ in their environment. Asperger’s. Graded schools are a blessing, Th=there they can be treated as perfectly normal humans beings. With our the social pressure of the ‘depressingly average, boring people.
    People with extraordinary abilities but low to normal in other areas need a different milieu again. These are often lumped a ‘gifted’ especially is they have low social intelligence. Once these people have found an outlet for their gifts they are feted by the world. But many of them fall be the wayside.
    On the other hand, genetics or brain damage can make individuals handicapped physically and mentally.
    They can (and DO) find extraordinary difficulty coping in a society that see them as worthless. It is these individuals the most pole think of a Autistics. But the reasons for their handicapped their behaviours and their abilities can be widely varied. Each deserves to be treated as an individual and helped to survive in the social system they find themselves in.

    1. No. Autism is not a description of behavior. It is a different neurological wiring of the brain.

  3. I like the idea that autism is a different language. I have often found myself lamenting the need for, and lack of, a “neurotypical interpreter.”

    Of course, this applies mostly to verbal autistics. Nonverbal autistics have a whole host of other problems in addition to speaking a different language. I am highly verbal (most of the time) so I don’t claim to speak for those who are not.

    I think a lot of difficulties that autistics experience interacting with NTs/allistics is that there are certain expectations underlying the communication that define how body movements, spoken, and unspoken messages are interpreted. Neurotypicals tend to impute meaning where there is none. Autistics tend to believe the words that are said without considering or sometimes even noticing any unspoken context. Neither way is right or better as both have their benefits and weaknesses. But I think that understanding these fundamental differences will go a long way in unwinding a lot of misunderstanding, hurt and abuse that colors a typical NT/ND interaction.

    Beyond that, I’m not sure that your analogy holds. Your story of a foreign language student learning the difference between “perro” and “pero” doesn’t really hold water because indeed you describe how children learn the difference. Their minds are too immature to understand an academic explanation of the context between one word and the other. Instead they simply begin by making a bunch of sounds until those sounds begin to reflect language that is recognizable by the adults in the room. When the adults respond positively, such as showering praise down on the baby for saying “dada,” the baby learns that saying dada is good. They say it more and in completely inappropriate contexts all the while subconsciously picking up on what contexts yield the praise they crave and what context does not. This is how language forms in infants.

    This is also how ABA attempts to teach “neurotypical language.”

    So I think your argument here isn’t that “ABA=bad because language” so much as “ABA=bad because disrespectful to a developed human mind and probably many other reasons. Also ND is a language”

    So, I suppose what I’m suggesting is that you separate your criticism of ABA from your claim that autism can be helpfully viewed as a neurological language. I think you end up with a much clearer and stronger case for your point.

  4. Temple Grandin has reportedly said that we need to teach social skills to kids with autism as if they come from the planet Mars, and has described herself as an “anthropologist from Mars” in the article at this link: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/oct/25/highereducationprofile.academicexperts .

    As a parent of a child who has autism, I do what Temple says parents should do because she is an autism “insider,” and she therefore knows better than any “outsider” what works and what doesn’t for people who are on the autism spectrum. I’m a recently self-diagnosed autist myself, so I’m still learning about this facet of my life. However, I’ve consciously dealt with the social, academic, physiological and psychological misconceptions that go along with being African-American all my life. So, I have first-hand knowledge of just how different and off-base societal perceptions can be of a person’s intelligence, physical appearance, capacity for language, inner thought life, and even the degree to which that individual should actually be considered human. Consequently, I place great value on the “insider” perspective.

    Because I decided to follow Grandin’s recommendation to “apprentice” my son in my profession, he’s been serving as my assistant when I teach ESL to adult learners. And, I’ve come to realize that Grandin and the author of this post are right about the merits of approaching social skill instruction (verbal and nonverbal communication) for autists in same way that we would approach teaching a second language to any student.

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