In my inbox this past week, the following letter:
You’re website is politically incorrect. Students are no longer being labeled “autistic”, but instead labeled as having autism. The word “retarded” is no longer acceptable for use either. If you are priding yourselves on helping students, you need to change your website. It is making me sick.My first reaction was: what a concise reflection of today's times! The writing skills; the thought-policing; the primacy of how I feel over thoughtful argumentation.
My second reaction was: I'm pretty sure I've studiously avoided the r-word. So I searched my blog, and the only thing that comes up is this: People look at me and assume that I am dumb because I can’t speak and I knowingly contribute to my looking retarded by carrying around a plastic spoon, but spoons are my comfort. There aren't my words, but a quote from the person doing the voiceover for Sue Rubin, an individual who purportedly "has autism" and whose communication is "facilitated."
As portrayed in this video and elsewhere in the media, Sue Rubin is a poster child for "having autism" vs. "being autistic." She is one of those purportedly "normal child locked inside" individuals who, with the help of a facilitator and a keyboard, is supposedly fully aware, expressive, introspective, and empathetic. And the above is what she purportedly says about her attachment to spoons.
According to the clinical (as opposed to the popularized) picture of autism, "being autistic," as I've argued (most recently here), is a much more appropriate characterization, given how deeply entangled the condition is with core cognitive and personality traits.
Consistent with this, many higher functioning individuals in the adult autism community prefer "autistic" to "having autism." In more general terms, like members of the Deaf community (who reject labels like "with deafness" or "having hearing impairments"), they prefer "identity-first" language to "person-like" language.
The counter-argument by self-styled disability advocates is that "indentity-first" language stigmatizes the people; these "advocates" overlook how "person-first" language stigmatizes the condition. "Having autism" sounds like "having shingles"--and it denies what many people think of as intimate to their identity.
As I've noted earlier, the divide between those with special needs and those who purport to speak for them can be quite toxic for the former. In person-first language, those who "have special needs advocacy goals" need to listen more carefully to those who "have special needs, period."