Cut it Out: An Open Letter

Dear World At Large,

Stop using “autistic” as an insult.

Maybe you claimed that a certain politician must be autistic. Or maybe you used autism as a metaphor to describe the problems of a particular country. Or maybe you laughed at someone and said they “look autistic.”

When you use the word “autistic” as a way to insult someone, the message received by those of us who actually are on the spectrum is not that the object of your insult is bad. It’s that being autistic is so completely awful that it’s a good way to belittle someone. It’s saying that autistic is synonymous with stupid, or unworthy, or rude, or whatever else you mean to imply. It’s showing what you think autistic people are like, as well as showing that you think it’s so inherent to autism that it makes sense to sling the word around as a way to insult people.

Of course, this is nothing new. People have been taking their prejudices about various groups of people, loading those prejudices onto certain descriptive words, and then hurling those words as insults for a very long time. Words like retarded and gay have also been used in this way – and all too often still are. It’s a problem.

Personally, I find it dismaying that instead of reducing the number of words we’re doing this with, we’re increasing them.

Of course, I say words, but it’s not just about the words. It’s about the people. Real, autistic people who are dynamic and interesting and strong and so much more than a collection a deficiencies, being used wholesale as a way to insult people. It reduces our entire reality into little more than a way to say “you’re bad.” It may be a by-product of the fact that it is socially acceptable to blatantly mock and belittle disabled people, but I maintain that neither of these things are in the least bit ok.

I have Asperger’s. I’m on the autism spectrum. I have friends, a significant other, hobbies, skills, interests, humor and so much more, and I am NOT an insult.


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One response to “Cut it Out: An Open Letter

  1. I’m working my way through a book on the intellectual history of the concept of intellectual disability, very slowly, because the author’s scholarship on early modern European intellectual history is, ahh, detailed, in the sense of arcane and exhaustive. The tone keeps it amusing, he is inexhaustible in moral outrage over the arbitrariness with which disability labels have always been used concerning the intellect. But while he sometimes takes extreme positions (sort of the extreme opposite of Simon Baron Cohen in terms of what positions he takes), he has good points about problems with construct validity with many diagnostic categories that are still with us, and also has strong arguments about how culturally constructed our concepts of disability are.

    The reason I thought of the book just now is that he mentions that from the very beginning, the people coining terms for intellectual disabilities used them to insult one another (i.e., other scholars in the self-appointed intelligentsia, particularly when arguing over technicalities), and not just to officially rule certain first-born sons incompetent to manage inherited estates and so forth. I thought that was cute, that the archaic records of scholarship in philosophy of mind and developmental psychology are peppered with the pre-digital equivalent of flamewars among the intellectual elite of their day. So maybe it’s hopeless, and these labels have always, on some level, been stigmatizing by design and hence ideally suited for ad hominems. Thomas Szasz might agree that the idea of a diagnostic category for mental illness being non-stigmatizing and the purpose of diagnosis and treatment being to help the patient is often a pretense for confinement and punitive behavior change interventions that are intended mainly to discourage the patient from inconveniencing those capable of ordering said “treatment plan” in the name of the patient’s best interests.