Being an advocate for autism I find myself perusing a great deal of message boards and websites in general to get some idea of the zeitgeist surrounding the condition. What saddens me even more than the stories of children having to cope with the social isolation more often than not inflicted by their fellow children which society deems “innocent” and “precious” is the attitude most adults have towards autism and the wording they use for their struggles with it.
Too often the words “cure”, “defeat” and “fight” are used in terms of helping children with autism. While I am sure most of these parents and other adults mean well and only want the best for these children, the usage of these words tends to betray the stigmatization that autism has. By using these terms, there is the connotation that autism is a curable ailment, something that needs to be removed much like polio, smallpox or leprosy. Autism is more than a set of symptoms: it is an entirely different way of viewing the world. Perhaps it is a bit in the way of hyperbole, but when I hear people talking about fighting autism I cannot help but think of intolerance in the past.
For example, take the word sinister: Most people connote the term as meaning evil, untrustworthy and conniving, and due to the way language evolves, that has become the accepted meaning; however, the etymology of the word is a translation of “left-handed.” During the Middle Ages, people actually believed that being left-handed was a sign of demonic possession, something to be exorcised and cured. Even in my lifetime, being both left-handed and autistic, the schools attempted to drive traits of both from me; however, thankfully they did not believe me to be possessed by demons.
I have a feeling much is left to be done in the way of autism advocacy: I want society to eventually learn to have both parties come together in the middle, to accept the benefits autism has and cope with the drawbacks. But so long as words that divide the autists from the neurotypicals are used, words that imply autism is only bad and has nothing good to offer, that day will likely creep further and further away.
Some of you are probably asking, “Cisco, How do I indicate I want to help the autistic people I know while fostering a bridge between the two?” Well, the wording can change while keeping the intent; instead of cure, help can be used; instead of defeating or fighting autism, integrating and supporting could transmit the proper intentions. I, for one, fight for the integration of autists and do what I can to support the autists I know; what we need to defeat is not autism, but ignorance.