Labels and Language Implications
In almost all arenas of community or group identity there are labels that are used to help us identify and categorize people into different groups. These groupings for some can have positive life-changing effects, whereas for others, the use of labels can be life-debilitating. This is no different for people who are on the Autism spectrum.
Before I go any further, I would like to say that this blog post is an opinion piece around labels used. With that, the intent of this brief article is to create a dialogue and to incite critical thinking in all directions (those who agree, disagree, or don’t hold an opinion). As a person who doesn’t personally experience the characteristics of Autism. I unashamedly point out that is through an Allistic (not Autistic) lens.
In my work as a therapist, I have experienced more than one way to identify this group. In addition to the “Autistic / Allisitic” labels, the most common other terminology that I have heard is “neurodiverse (neurodivergent) / neurotypical”.
My personal preference is for the Autistic label instead of the Neurodiverse label. My reasoning is simply that I feel the “neurodiverse” term adds a connotation of aberrance to the people who are Autistic. By identifying the other (Allistic) group and “Neurotypical” it creates clouded perceptions of what is meant by the “typical” portion of the word. It is hard to not hear “neurotypical” and immediately have word comparisons of “common”, “expected”, “standard”, or even “correct”, come up as embellishments of the label. I see a number of clients who struggle with masking their Autistic behaviors due to feelings of being “not typical” and thus, trying desperately to resist the natural behavioral tendencies that make them different. Ironically, these very same clients are often more directly connected with their emotions, behaviors, and needs than people who are Allistic. In my mind this begs the question if the terms neurotypical and neurodivergent would be more congruently aligned if they were reversed?
I am sure the founders of these labels had the medical model and Allistic perspectives with good intentions, and would make the argument that it is the “neuro” (or brain) portion of the word that is being augmented by “typical” and “diverse”. Fair point, I suppose. Nonetheless, I have to wonder if the physical connotation of the words are tainted by implications and nuance around the language that end up pathologizing the Autistic person.
Another struggle I have is not being Autistic and hearing terminology used in and by the community that feels offensive to me. I have to own my internal struggles with this and note that I don’t have the lived experience of the community and therefore do not hold the right to have power over the community’s choice in terms. The struggle I face in particular involves using person-first language. Where I have been culturally conditioned to refer to people as people and not as a condition, I will tend to say, “a person with Autism” as opposed to “An autistic”. I do hear the latter used by people within the community, and wonder how and what is truly preferred? Coming from a position of not knowing, I find the best thing to do is to ask… “being someone who is experiencing Autism, how do prefer to be addressed?” Labels can carry varied weight of importance among individuals so I find asking is best. This also carries over to the choice of which label – Autistic, Allistic, Neurodivergent, or Neurotypical- a person prefers to be used. I believe the practice of asking can be applied to almost any group that has more than one label being universally used whether it be gender, race, ethnicity, medical condition, or any other variety of qualifying conditions that makes them a part of a particular community.
Please feel free to add your comments to this post. I would love to hear the different perspectives around this topic.