Language Matters #1: Deficits and Disorders

Why does language matter anyway?

For most people, language is their primary way of interacting with the world and one another.

It is a way to make our thoughts visible for those around us and, as a way of making sense of our inner workings too. It is important to note at this point that not everybody communicates verbally and, although this little series will be focusing primarily on spoken language and the impact that it has on the way we think, this effect is not restricted to those who don’t use spoken language as their primary means of communication (because the language we use informs the way we think, which in turn affects the way we behave both at a conscious and subconscious level, which ultimately impacts those around us).

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Deficits and Disorders

Thankfully, the language around Special Educational Needs & Disabilities (SEND) is changing. We are slowly heading towards a less pathologising way of understanding difference, particularly when it comes to neurodivergence. Unfortunately a lot of the language remains in play because of a number of factors. Diagnoses that were made before the shift, professionals whose training is now somewhat dated and a lack of representation of neurodivergent people outside of stereotypes in the media all feed into the problem.

Dr Jac Den Houting describes the problem with these labels, from the perspective of both an academic and as an autistic person, in their TEDx Talk at Macquarie University. Finding out that they were autistic brought them an ‘overwhelming sense of relief’.

I wasn’t a failed neurotypical person. I was a perfectly good autistic person.

Before studying for their PhD in autism and becoming a doctor, they found themself on the Internet trying to look for answers about their autism. They describe being bombarded by information about their deficits, which didn’t make any sense to them. Being diagnosed as autistic was a really positive and affirming experience, as it explained why they were different.

This information did not make sense.

They go on to describe a study that compared a group of neurotypical people and a group of autistic people. The study looked at communication and found that, when the message was passed through a group of people sharing the same neurotype, the shift in the message was the same in both the groups. When they mixed up the groups, the communication was significantly worse.

People with autism don’t have a communication deficit, unless they are trying to communicate with a neurotypical person, when both sides may find it equally difficult to understand one another. It is not a communication deficit, it’s a difference. Language is important, and who we centre affects how we describe a perceived problem.

I will let you watch the rest of Jac’s TEDx Talk; it’s much better for you to hear this story in their words rather than mine. But the summary, if you’re short on time is:

I am not disabled by my autism, I am disabled by my environment.

The shift here is from having a disability, as a noun, or being disabled, as an adjective, to being disabled as a verb. To be disabled by the environment rather than to hold the disability internally shifts our perception from something that needs to be resolved in the person to something that is affecting the person and can be adjusted without affecting who they are.

Language matters.

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