Anti-Semantism: These Poor, Unfortunate Mixed Metaphors Are Trapped in a Wall of Autism

Welcome to Anti-Semantism, a section of Angry Autie that tackles language use, especially as it pertains to autism and discussing it. Words are very profound and powerful things. People know this in the abstract but yet continue using words imprecisely. It may seem like what I’m doing here is just nit-picking to most people but I find the way that people use words to be extremely revealing, more revealing than they may want. It is possible to call people out on bullshit based on their word-choice. I believe that a lot of problems arise from a misunderstanding in communication, which people with autism supposedly lack. In Anti-Semantism, there’ll be diatribes against certain terms, an analysis of how certain terms are used, and more. Any topic that is about language use in autism discourse will fall under the “Anti-Semantism” label.

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One interesting thing that sets Autism apart from other neurological conditions is that most people choose to talk about it metaphorically almost exclusively because that’s how we best understand it. But sad things and major misunderstandings happen when metaphors are used so often that they become taken for granted in daily discourse, like the following metaphors have.

Here are the four most common metaphors used to talk about autism:

  • Military metaphors: the Combating Autism Act, meaning autism is the enemy to combat in battle. Also used in talking about cancer (“He’s battling cancer.”)
  • Kidnapping metaphors: “Autism stole my child,” meaning autism is a kidnapper.
  • Barrier metaphors: “My child is trapped behind a wall of autism,” meaning autism is a wall.
  • Death metaphors: Lives Lost to Autism, meaning autism is a deadly disease.

So Autism = enemy = kidnapper = life-threatening disease = wall

By the way, wall = room paneling

Ergo, Autism = enemy = kidnapper = life-threatening disease = room paneling

Let’s synthesize all this together: According to society, Autism is an inanimate, non-sentient room paneling that we must wage war against. While Autism is busy being a room paneling, Autism is also on the other side of itself being a sentient person holding a child hostage – actually, it’s not a real child; it’s an ideal yet still hypothetical child because Autism doesn’t actually steal children. So in essence, Autism stole an idea. While Autism is holding the child-idea hostage on the other side of Autism, Autism is also a deadly disease infesting the idea, which Autism simultaneously kidnapped and then proceeded to hide behind Autism! So Autism is inside an intangible idea that stands next to Autism while Autism hides behind Autism!

In other words, Autism is a room paneling that can simultaneously kidnap ideas and infect them with itself (the infection is actually a room paneling as well) and we must battle the room paneling! For the children! Evil, evil room paneling!

Let me ask you this now: Did any of that make sense? Well tough shit, because this is the message that society is sending you about autism.

Lesson of the day: Leave metaphors to actual literature and just accept the fact that we actually don’t know shit about autism. My interpretation shows how easily the perception of Autism could become completely distorted because of the nebulous nature of metaphors.

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Anti-Semantism: On Ableist Language

Welcome to Anti-Semantism, a section of Angry Autie that tackles language use, especially as it pertains to autism and discussing it. Words are very profound and powerful things. People know this in the abstract but yet continue using words imprecisely. It may seem like what I’m doing here is just nit-picking to most people but I find the way that people use words to be extremely revealing, more revealing than they may want. It is possible to call people out on bullshit based on their word-choice. I believe that a lot of problems arise from a misunderstanding in communication, which people with autism supposedly lack. In Anti-Semantism, there’ll be diatribes against certain terms, an analysis of how certain terms are used, and more. Any topic that is about language use in autism discourse will fall under the “Anti-Semantism” label.

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Yes, I drew this. Sorry!

Yes, I drew this. Sorry!

I recently came across a post by Lydia Brown at Autistic Hoya, one of my favorite autism/disability blogs, in which she creates a glossary of ableist vocabulary. The reason for including some of the words should be immediately apparent to anyone with their head in this century (eg. “retard,” “mongoloid,” “suffers from ___”) but there are some words, the inclusion of which seems questionable or just overly sensitive or PC to the average person (eg. “idiot,” “dumb,” “moron”). I myself was shocked to find the words of the latter kind as well but it turns out that these words have a dark history that most people are not apparently aware of.

When I debate with someone about autism in real life, I might perform what the average person would see as nitpicking: criticizing the use of certain words or phrases. My reason for doing this is that they invisibly propagate the ableist agenda, though I focus more on words that could be directed at autistic people for obvious reasons. Words like ‘retard’ and ‘idiot’ are/have been used to stigmatize mental disability in the same way that the word ‘nigger’ was traditionally used to humiliate black people and in the same way that the word ‘faggot’ has been used to demean LGBT people. Even though I have argued in the past that autism is not a disability proper, it is often labeled a disability and thus autistic people also become a target of this ableist vocabulary.

“But why criticize the use of words like ‘idiot’?” you might reasonably-unreasonably ask, “They’re totally harmless words in normal conversation!”

Are they?

At around the same time I stumbled upon Lydia’s list of words, I read George Orwell’s paper “Politics and the English Language,” written in 1946, which changed the way that I think about language, written and spoken. In his paper, he argues that mediocre writers are largely unaware of what they write or say. They either do not stop to think about the implied meaning of what they say, they don’t care about the implied meaning, or they don’t care enough to articulate their point in a fresh way, resulting in very imprecise, dull, and, therefore, bad writing or speech. According to Orwell, some marks of such writing and speaking include the use of dying and dead metaphors (“and so he washed his hands of the whole thing”), “pretentious diction” (eg. overly big and obscure words, foreign phrases, scientific terms), and words that don’t readily or vividly mean anything in their given context (check out any art/music/literary criticism for prominent examples. “This film is so self-aware!”). I could do a whole ‘not-tistic’ post on bad writing and bad diction. My theory is that bad writing can stem from unoriginal and unexamined thoughts – that is, thoughts fed to us by society. The vehicle of bad writing (bad writing is unfortunately more common than we want to think) helps to keep these thoughts alive and no amount of elegant articulation could salvage it. I’ll say more about this in a future ‘not-tistic’ post.

Reading Orwell’s paper along with Lydia’s list of words and some research into the listed words had helped me realize that a general ignorance of your own language and its history has great potential to feed the ableist agenda. Lydia points out the history of the words and Orwell illuminates the possibility that ignorance perpetuates the machine.

To give an example, words like ‘idiot,’ ‘moron,’ and ‘imbecile’ are words that come with a history that’s related to mental illness and its stigmatization and that history dates back to the early 20th century. These words have existed before and were simply used to describe someone who was inane but in 1911, these three words became the official words that psychologists would use – in the name of science! – to describe people with IQs lower than 70. If your IQ is between 51 and 70, you’re a ‘moron,’ able to learn how to complete menial tasks and communicate but nothing more. If it’s between 26 and 50, you’re an ‘imbecile,’ never progressing past the mental age of six. Between zero and 25, you’re an ‘idiot,’ saddled with poor motor skills, extremely limited communication, and little response to stimuli. This classification existed from 1911, when the first IQ test was devised, to the early 70’s when people finally realized that these were awful labels. Psychologists then eschewed this classification system and moved on to – something even better! – degrees of ‘retardation’; mild, moderate, severe, and profound to be exact.

Therefore, the use of words like ‘idiot,’ ‘imbecile,’ and ‘moron’ should be off-limits when describing someone with a mental illness or someone who is just asinine to keep the ableist agenda at bay. These words either were derived from actual descriptions of the ‘mentally ill’ or have been/are still used to oppress them. Yet people still use them because these words have become a part of their lexicon. I even hear my father and stepmother, who I understand don’t intend to insult me, still refer to autism as a ‘disease’ and as something that you ‘suffer from.’ I often think that they are just ignorant of what they’re implying, that their speech and their thought are disconnected in these embarrassing moments. But when someone talks on autopilot, so to speak, what they say and how they say it provides insight into what the person’s actual attitudes are or, if they’re conformist enough, what society’s attitudes are. Eerie, isn’t it?

Moral of the story: have a better understanding of and be more sensitive to the inner workings of your language. Why? Not just for the sake of political correctness toward auties – I personally don’t give a flying rat’s ass about political correctness – but because you fucking speak the language and therefore have an intrinsic responsibility as a living and self-actualizing human being to know and speak it well. By knowing and speaking well, I don’t mean knowing a lot of fifty-dollar words or coming up with the most complicated way to say something simple (that would make you sound more obnoxious than intelligent). I mean knowing your words well and being constantly aware of the relationship between your words and your intended meaning, assuming you have one, you slithering sophist (also, good grammar). This way, you could overcome the ableist agenda.

“But isn’t this just a case of words evolving and changing meaning over time?”

Good point. But whether or not it’s at the forefront of your consciousness, words like ‘idiot’ still have historical baggage and have been intended to be hurtful or oppressive. The fact that these words manage to live on despite their shady past is disturbing if you think about it.

“Well, Mr. Language Police, what words should I use instead of ‘idiot’?”

First of all, hypothetical questioner, I’m not Mr. Language Police, I’m Angry Autie (though I don’t mind being called Mr. Anti-Ableist Police if you must ascribe some juvenile sounding police-related epithet). Second, if you bothered to read beyond the words not to use in Lydia’s post, you will find that she has picked some substitutes for insulting someone’s intelligence that are not only acceptable but also far more eloquent than ‘moron’ and ‘crazy.’ Some of my favorites are ‘asinine,’ ‘vapid,’ ‘inane,’ ‘ridiculous,’ and ‘ignoramus.’ Alternatively, if all you want to do is generally insult someone, you could hurl the highbrow yet effective Shakespearean insult.

I also have no intention of policing anyone’s language but my own. I’m not gonna be that guy at parties who launches into unprecedented lectures on ableist language whenever I hear someone use the word ‘idiot’ in regular conversation. The best I can do is try to set a good example however I can, from calling George W. Bush ‘inane’ instead of an ‘idiot’ (although ‘idiot’ would be fine in Bush’s case… sorry, did I just make a political comment? That won’t happen again) to writing about ableist language on this blog.

I may have used some of the ableist words on this blog in the past but I’m not about to go back and change them. I’d like to keep a record of the evolution of my language use.

[Sources: Autistic Hoya & Mental Floss]

Anti-Semantism: Is it “Autistic Person” or “Person with Autism”?: An Introduction to Person-First Language

Welcome to Anti-Semantism, a section of Angry Autie that tackles language use, especially as it pertains to autism. Words are very profound and powerful things. People know this in the abstract but yet continue using words imprecisely. It may seem like what I’m doing here is just nit-picking to most people but I find the way that people use words to be extremely revealing, more revealing than they may want. It is possible to call people out on bullshit based on their word-choice. I believe that a lot of problems arise from a misunderstanding in communication, which people with autism supposedly lack. In Anti-Semantism, there’ll be diatribes against certain terms, an analysis of how certain terms are used, and more. Any topic that is about language use in autism discourse will fall under the “Anti-Semantism” label.

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I just stumbled upon a concept of autism discourse that I’ll admit I’ve never heard of before. That concept is called “person-first language.” What it does is call attention to the subtle yet potent distinction between calling an autie “an autistic person” vs. “a person with autism.” People who advocate person-first language prefer calling us “people with autism” as opposed to “autistic people.” This is something that people who write about or discuss autism should be keenly aware of.

One pro of “person with autism” is that “autism” is unfortunately a pretty cumbersome and almost dirty word in our society. It carries the weight of pathology, failure, and mental illness with it wherever it goes. The idea behind “person with autism” is that “person” coming first in the noun will add a dimension of humanity and offset the suggestion of pathology. But that’s all it does and frankly, it doesn’t help our cause.

On the other hand, “autistic person” sounds far more ambiguous than “person with autism” and thus, has a more poetic quality. Were the weight of “autism” not so great and evocative, I would strongly advocate the “autistic person” label. It suggests that the person has certain characteristics of autism without carrying the distinction of being autistic as clearly and distinctly as “person with autism.” It says nothing about the subject being on the spectrum and it doesn’t have to; it doesn’t really matter if the person is on the spectrum or not in this case. “Person with autism” makes a clear statement that the subject is on the spectrum.

It’s like the distinction between “schizophrenic” and “person with schizophrenia” in everyday discourse. Even though the colloquial use of “schizophrenic” bears minimal resemblance to actual schizophrenia, it’s merely suggestive and not meant to be taken as a statement on what schizophrenia really is or to suggest that the subject suffers from schizophrenia. Likewise, if you take away the weight of the word “autism,” saying that someone is autistic could suggest that they have certain characteristics without suggesting that they were actually on the spectrum. Let’s face it: autism is a very broad condition with a variety of symptoms and quirks. Any normal person could look at a list of characteristics that auties are known to have and relate to quite a handful of them. Having the label “autistic person” would offer more leeway in describing such people.

As an added bonus, if the person really does have a formal diagnosis of autism, then it is accepting of the fact that it is a part of his or her identity. It recognizes that autism, rather than being a disease, is a tightly integral part of our identity. “Person with autism” undermines that aspect by attempting to separate identity and neurology.

The only drawback with “autistic person” that “person with autism” addresses is that the use of “autistic person” implies that you are defining the person by virtue of their autism or autistic traits but I think that this is viewed as something to avoid because “autism” is such a hot-button topic. But when it comes down to it, it’s like suggesting that there’s a distinction between “Asian person” and “person with Asianness.” This is just another vain attempt at political correctness.

In conclusion, it’s a mixed bag because of the implications of the word “autism” but I think I’ll go with “autistic person.” I’ll vary the language up a bit from now on depending on what I’m trying to say about the person, hypothetical or not, in question. I’ll use the term ‘autie’ when I’m not interested in making a distinction or when making a distinction is not important. I’m not going back to change any of my language because I want to watch the use of my language evolve.

What do you guys think? I’d be very interested in gathering some other perspectives on this.

Anti-Semantism: Yes… “Disability”…

Welcome to Anti-Semantism, a section of Angry Autie that tackles language use, especially as it pertains to autism. Words are very profound and powerful things. People know this in the abstract but yet continue using words imprecisely. It may seem like what I’m doing here is just nit-picking to most people but I find the way that people use words to be extremely revealing, more revealing than they may want. It is possible to call people out on bullshit based on their word-choice. I believe that a lot of problems arise from a misunderstanding in communication, which people with autism supposedly lack. In Anti-Semantism, there’ll be diatribes against certain terms, an analysis of how certain terms are used, and more. Any topic that is about language use in autism discourse will fall under the “Anti-Semantism” label.

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photo

Back in my plea to stop calling autism a disorder, I mentioned something in passing about how it’s sometimes referred to as a disability and how that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of autism. Basically, I state that autism is a give or take scenario. “Disorder” is a shitty word but “disability” is merely a misunderstanding, as great a misunderstanding as it may be. I’m going to expand on that here.

A disability, according to the dictionary, is “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.”

Okay, fine. I accept that we are limited in some respects. For example, I still can’t organize sonic sensory input very well; I hear everything almost equally all at once, which is really frustrating. When I talk to someone, I’m sometimes distracted by a nearby conversation, not because the conversation is interesting but because it’s there; I am unable to filter that conversation out.

But because I’m disabled in some aspects doesn’t make me disabled in general. There are things that autistic people can’t do but there are things that normal people can’t do either, or at least are severely limited in. Neurotypicals are usually pretty stupid, they’re conformists, they routinely lie, they fall prey to far more biases, they’re arrogant (just read any history book for evidence of this one), they don’t know how to be alone, they speak in the vaguest possible ways, and they routinely suffer from false memories. I didn’t even fully realize that false memories were a thing until I took a course in cognitive psychology in college.

But in due course, I think that to see autism as a disability is to ignore the incredible variability and diversity of the human race. The fact that labels like ‘disability’ exist suggests that we have to be a certain way in order to be human and the idea of being this perfect human has been something that has built up a lot of tension in me over the years. It’s much like what women face since they receive mixed messages, which are usually unrealistic to begin with, from all sorts of sources on how to be a woman. The ‘disability’ label suggests that I’m a failed human because I am unable to live up to my potential and a lot of people think of autistic people this way, which I find very depressing. When I mention the 1 in 50 stats to people while masquerading as a neurotypical, the reaction I get is “I know, isn’t it horrible?”

In my experience, autistic people are probably more able to live up to their potential than most normal people. My theory is that neurotypicals feel emasculated because these weird-ass psychotic-looking autistic people are realizing themselves quite fully and take on their interests more intensely and passionately than most people. Man has now crossed over into a neuroimperialism (although there’s a neuro-everything these days). Have you normals learned nothing?

Anti-Semantism: Here’s a Crazy Idea: Let’s Stop Calling Autism a Disorder!

Welcome to Anti-Semantism, a section of Angry Autie that tackles language use, especially as it pertains to autism. Words are very profound and powerful things. People know this in the abstract but yet continue using words imprecisely. It may seem like what I’m doing here is just nit-picking to most people but I find the way that people use words to be extremely revealing, more revealing than they may want. It is possible to call people out on bullshit based on their word-choice. I believe that a lot of problems arise from a misunderstanding in communication, which people with autism supposedly lack. In Anti-Semantism, there’ll be diatribes against certain terms, an analysis of how certain terms are used, and more. Any topic that is about language use in autism discourse will fall under the “Anti-Semantism” label.

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I like to think of my autism as an incidental state of being more than anything, much like being gay or being born in November. Being autistic is a trait with which I was born and I find to be largely unalterable. If you call it, for instance, a disorder, you ascribe a characteristic onto us that is influenced by your own view of how things should be and we feel ostracized because we don’t quite fit that view of how things should be. And you also turn the impressionable sect of the population (i.e. children and people who can’t think their way out of a paper bag) against us.

Apparently, the nouns used to describe autism nowadays are words like “disorder,” which, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, actually means “a state of confusion.” You really think autism is a state of confusion? Sometimes it is but try telling me that when I’m wrapped up in my composing or writing. To me, this shows that we still haven’t come very far in autism awareness, despite some people’s pretentions. Anyone who promotes autism awareness but still calls autism a ‘disorder’ is full of shit; it should occur to anyone with a decent grasp of English that words like ‘disorder’ are actively hurtful terms in this context.

I will not argue that autism is not a disability; it certainly is in some respects and I actually don’t mind the term so much since it’s broad and includes people who face similar issues related to discrimination and misunderstanding, though I am still rather reluctant to refer to my autism as a disability. We get all sorts of freak talents that make up for our impairments such as super Dalai-Lama-like concentration, ability to notice all the little details, etc. so it’s not a disability in the full sense of the word anyway. It’s more like a Faustian pact of sorts. A disability implies an inability to do something without much compensation. A paraplegic person is considered disabled because they cannot walk. A deaf person is considered disabled because they cannot hear (though that’s complicated as well since they have ways of compensating that result in a rich deaf culture). An autistic person is disabled because… um… uh… they like trains too much and that freaks out normal people. And don’t say that we can’t communicate. Sure, some of us can’t talk but talking is only one of several methods of communicating.

We need a word that acknowledges the fundamentally alien nature (in the eyes of ‘normals’) of autism but still grants that nature equal status, like how one might acknowledge that someone from the other side of the world has a dissimilar system of values. We could say ‘different’ but it still carries a negative connotation. We could say ‘eccentric’ but that puts us on an undeserved pedestal in some minds and it’s a euphemism for ‘different’ or even ‘insane’ in other minds (though I personally blush when someone calls me ‘eccentric’). Terms like ‘neurologically different’ are the most accurate but are too much of a mouthful for regular conversation.

The already-existing term that I like the most/dislike the least is ‘condition.’ It’s the closest to my preferred description of autism as an incidental and alternative state of being. It’s very broad and neutral. Philosophers would describe a state of being as a ‘condition’ when they don’t want to go through the fuss of describing something in great detail. ‘Condition’ is a term for acceptance of things as they are whereas terms like ‘disorder’ assume a perfect potential way of being and that the agent on the receiving end of that term is incapable of reaching that perfect point. In order for this to work, however, it needs to be a two-way street; ‘neurotypical’ needs to be classified as a condition as much as autism, otherwise it would only take us so far. It would seem a little disingenuous if autism is a ‘condition’ while neurotypical doesn’t receive a label. As far as I’m concerned, everything is in a condition. There is no harmony, there is no disorder; everything just is. Understanding this is the key to true acceptance. And since autism prevalence is rising rapidly, we gotta get our acceptance game on!