Image Credit: Wendy Baskin
August 28, 2013

Is “Autistic” The New “Retarded”?

Imagine you’re sitting in a classroom on the first day of school. You are anxious about the coursework, you’re worried about your grades, and you’re concerned you won’t be able to balance your school life and home life equally. You are the parent of a small child with severe autism.

Oh, and you also have Asperger’s.

Now imagine the professor strides into the room and begins discussing what will take place over the next term: outlining the syllabus, explaining how grades are given, going over mundane things like office hours and absences.

Wrapping it up, he casually reassures the students that they should all get decent grades.

Unless they’re autistic or something.

And  then he laughed.


Sadly, this is a true story. Intensely concerned about retaliation and her grades, the student decided not to confront him, and instead write about it on her personal blog. You can read her account of it at Autism Raising Autism.

There has been a lot of hubub over eradicating the word “retard” as a slur over the past few years. There’s even an organization dedicated to the cause, R-Word: Spread The Word to End The Word. While people are still throwing around the “r-word” as an insult, it’s becoming less acceptable in the common vernacular.

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

Without trusty “retard” as a putdown, a lot of folks have taken to using “autistic” instead. Most notably in the music community, with Drake, J. Cole and 50 Cent all making use of this trendy new term. I’m not sure why, but perhaps the loss of one insult left a void? We just really needed another word for expressing our dislike of another person, I suppose.

But why “autistic”? If you’re wanting to refer to someone as mentally slow, unintelligent, or ignorant, why not use those terms instead? Is it so necessary that we need to have a go-to derogatory word at our disposal?

I’ve heard a lot of defense of people who throw around “autistic” casually, and I don’t understand it. What if the professor had said “unless you’re black” or “unless you’re gay” or “unless you’re a woman”? He would be at the least suspended. It would be on CNN. Gloria Allred and the ACLU would be clamoring to be involved.

It’s the same thing. The. same. thing.

We in the autism community are waging a huge fight for not just awareness, but acceptance. To be seen as equal, functional members of society. My son requires one-on-one help to attend school and focus in the classroom, but he’s also studying astrophysics at home. He’s seven.

The individual who sat in her class and listened to her new professor refer to people with autism like herself is not only a student, she’s a parent.

There are people like Carly Fleischman, who was not able to communicate with the outside world at all until she was a teenager, through computers. She is now a notable person in the autism community.

And for every Carly or child like mine or adult like the student sitting in class, there are thousands more you’ll never hear of. You might not ever even meet them. But they’re out there, they’re everywhere. Whether or not you think a person with autism is a productive or contributing member of society is irrelevant (and up to your own sense of morality). Putting down an entire class of people because you’re too ignorant or lazy to think up an appropriate word is just that: ignorant and lazy. And offensive.

So, so offensive.

Autism is not new, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of or hidden away. Autistic persons deserve every bit of humanity afforded to the same idiots who would use their different neurology as a weapon of degradation.

I hope the professor in question is seriously dealt with by the powers that be at his school. I hope anyone who thinks it’s OK to use the word “autistic” to mean someone stupid, less than, or not important gets a good old fashioned smack upside the head.

Words have meaning, words carry weight, and words can hurt.

They can also empower.

My son is autistic. Which means he is capable of anything., including kicking your ass someday if you don’t knock it off.

And I’ll be right there behind him, backing him up.

Watch your mouth, please.

Image Credit: Wendy Baskin

Image Credit: Wendy Baskin

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