I know, that title makes your head spin a little – especially if you’re a grammarian. But, that’s a pretty good description of the way I felt during my early days of trying to navigate the “language of the spectrum”.
During my travels, I was reminded that language is fluid and ever-changing. Words that originate to describe or define one thing, are often molded and reshaped to mean something quite different under the weight of cultural and societal influence. We humans have a special knack for altering context to suit our needs and preferences.
We are currently living in a time of linguistic evolution where people are trying to be more sensitive in word choices used to refer to others. Mostly. Sometimes. OK, a little. But some of us are really trying.
We are also living in a time where people are defying the labels that have been attached to them, and the weight of political correctness does not balance the scale. I think political correctness – that extra (some would say excessive) effort to police our conversations in such a way as to avoid offending anybody – is creating quite a stir these days.
That is why I watch with much interest when people are called on the carpet for making a gaffe. We are finding that the use of certain linguistic terms that were once considered commonplace, and completely acceptable in certain circles, can actually cause empires to crumble in today’s environment.
One of the biggest problems that has yet to be resolved is the lack of consensus on which right is right. Which right is correct. Which right – oh, you get the point. Take, for example, this link on wikiHow that gives advice on How to be Politically Correct in 8 steps. I take an exception to some of the suggestions as being extremely misguided, so what does that say? It says that this conversation, like conversations about autism, have many views, and at times they can be very oppositional.
If you’ve read any of my other articles you probably noticed that political correctness is not my forte’, but with that said, I don’t go out of my way to offend either. And this brings me back to my title (finally!) – there are those who feel a person like Lia should be referred to as “she is autistic”, and there are those who subscribe to the “person first” description of “she has autism”. I struggled with the whole issue of using “is” or “has” for a hot minute. Then I realized that for me, I would do what I always do and that is use the terminology for the person I am addressing or referencing in their choice of vernacular. I have never asked Lia’s parents specifically which they prefer, but I listened, and I have noticed that they tend to use both options interchangeably. I take my cues from them. Lia doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. And yes, I actually asked her and she said, “I wanna eat.” What can I say? She’s a girl who has her priorities in order.
I have said on more than one occasion, love them or hate them, labels – the names we use to reference people and things – are important in the medical field. They help use identify, categorize, compare, and study. They help us maintain some semblance of order in the chaos that is medicine. The use of labels is not likely to go away. Ever.
But when it comes to dealing with people, I’d like to offer a little advice based on some personal experiences – don’t ever assume anything when it comes to addressing another person, and don’t take it upon yourself to decide for them. Ask. It is always better to let people self-identify. And then honor their request.
A teacher is reading from the class roster, “Bartholemeux Greene?” Glancing around the room she repeats, “Bartholemeux Greene?”
A hand is slowly raised. “That’s the name my parents gave me,” the owner of the hand replies quietly, “I’d rather be called Barry.”
“Barry it is.” Glancing once again at the list, “Ke’Andra Piggot?” Waiting. “Ke’Andra…”