Language Matters #2: Autism Spectrum Condition

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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Autism Spectrum Condition

The language around autism is evolving rapidly, as more and more people come to have an understanding of autism, the more varied the language has become. I’d like to say at this point that my view on the most appropriate language does not supersede an autistic person’s preferred terms for self-description.

If you are active on Instagram and want to hear from the #actuallyautistic community, you could start by following @fidgets.and.fries and @the.autisticats.

ASC is still sometimes referred to as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and has previously been known as Asperger’s Syndrome. You may also be familiar with functioning labels such as high- or low-functioning. I’d like to unpack all of these today.

Where does the name Asperger’s Syndrome come from?

In the 1980s, an English psychiatrist called Lorna Wing proposed the name Asperger’s Syndrome based on a 1944 paper by Hans Asperger. In 2018, an eight-year study into his relationship with the Nazis found that Asperger had worked with them on their Euthanasia Programme. Interestingly, although Lorna Wing found Asperger’s paper, he was not the first person to clinically pathologise characteristics we would now associate with ASC.

Grunya Sukhareva, a Soviet child psychologist, had written about ‘autistic symptoms’ in 1925. Her Jewish heritage is probably one of the reasons that he didn’t cite her in his work.

What are ‘functioning labels’ and why do we need to stop using them?

Traditionally, people with autism have been categorised as having either high-functioning or low-functioning autism. This perspective on autism is simply incorrect. As we often say at Qualified Tutor, context is key.

A high-functioning label implies that the person functions the same as a neurotypical person, which is a contradiction in itself given that a neurodivergent person is neurodivergent because their brain function diverges from that of a neurotypical brain. A low-functioning person is understood to be unable to function ‘normally’ in one or more areas of their life.

Before we look at why this is a completely incorrect and unhelpful way of thinking about autism, I would like to pose to you this question.

Could you look a person in the eye and tell them that they are low-functioning? Probably not. Why? It’s dehumanising. I would put this forward as the main reason for abandoning functioning levels altogether.

Labelling a person as functioning in one manner or another doesn’t account for their humanness in a reasonable way, because it implies that their behaviour will be the same in all settings. This is not true of neurotypical people, so we shouldn’t expect it to be true for neurodivergent people either. Context is key.

How safe, understood, comfortable or familiar a person feels in a particular setting or with a particular person will determine their behaviour. And of course, their neurotype will inform some aspects of their behaviour, but as we understand autism to be a spectrum, we can now appreciate that there are as many ways to be autistic as there are people with autism. 

The best way to understand how a person is affected by their autism is to let them tell you what they need.

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