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11 July 2012


I'm aware that a great deal of people in the autism and Autistic communities were very upset--and understandably so--after rapper 50 Cent's use of the word "autistic" as an insult, but my anger has been reserved for one of the many undoubtedly well-meaning yet terribly conceived responses to 50 Cent.

Justin Rosario, who blogs at Proud To Be A Filthy Liberal Scum, wrote a scathing response to 50 Cent for using "autistic" as an insult, rightfully referring to 50 Cent's speech as "language of hate." After that, it gets problematic. Mr. Rosario, who has an Autistic child, has all the best of intentions as he deconstructs the type of speech 50 Cent was using by comparing it to derogatory racial terms, anti-Semitic slurs, and homophobic insults. But he fails to recognize that "Autistic" is not a derogatory term; in fact, it is the word that describes people who belong to a common community. "Autistic" is not an insult or a slur. It is not an ableist pejorative. It is as much a valid identifier as Deaf or Asian or Trans or Kenyan. And yes, while members of those groups can and are attacked on the basis of their identity and membership in those groups, the names of those groups are not derogatory terms in themselves.

It gets worse. Mr. Rosario writes,

At least the above groups can defend themselves. Many of those with autism or “special ed kids” can’t. ”You look autistic?” What does that even mean? Did he watch Rainman once? Maybe he heard the word by accident and thought it would make a good insult? Anyone who has spent more than ten seconds with an autistic child (or has one, like me) knows that autistic kids can look just like everyone else. Using their condition as an epitaph is the lowest of the low. I expect that kind of crap from a child who doesn’t know any better.

Let's deconstruct this.

There is some good content in here, but it's buried by some pretty awful statements, too. Yes, Autistic people don't tend to look like each other (although there are some studies that show similar proportions in facial features, the average layperson is highly unlikely to a.) know that or b.) apply that when seeing strangers), and beyond Autistic ways to speak and move, there isn't really an "Autistic look." Good for Mr. Rosario on that one. And yes, Autistic people can look just like anyone else. And yes, using Autistic as an insult is incredibly demeaning, about as hateful and hurtful as using Asian or woman as an insult.

But those good points are drowned out all too quickly for me by the rest of Mr. Rosario's statement.

Firstly, Autistic kids are not the only Autistic people in existence. Autistic kids become Autistic adults, and it's tiresome, redundant, and frustrating to continually hear talk of "Autistic children" and "Autistic kids" outside the specific context of children under 18. We're not talking about schools or early intervention, people. We're talking about using the word "Autistic" as an insult. Autistic children become Autistic adults. I am one.

Secondly, even if Mr. Rosario
did intend to refer to all Autistic people with his comment, he would then be perpetuating the type of paternalism that sees all Autistic people as eternal children, forever childlike, innocent, naïve, incapable of becoming adults, rendered forever to infantilization--another form of de-legitimizing and silencing. Of course Autistic children are children. But Autistic youth and Autistic adults should never, ever be referred to as "Autistic kids" or "Autistic children."

Third, the paternalism and well-meaning condescension in Mr. Rosario's blatant and explicit presumption of incompetence is astounding. Autistic people, including Autistic children, are not defenseless. We are not helpless. We do not exist merely for the whim or caprice of whoever happens to be around us, with absolutely no means of expressing our feelings. Yes, most Autistic people have difficulties with expressive communication, receptive communication, or both, but
that does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves. As well-meaning as Mr. Rosario may be in wanting to protect perceived-ly defenseless people from horrific and cruel comments, his statement serves only to further perpetuate the fallacious idea that Autistic people are incapable of speaking up for themselves. Even among Autistic people who lack functional expressive communication skills or expressive speech, there is a plethora of Autistic people with the most significant disabilities who have learned--sometimes very late into adulthood--to communicate. Mr. Rosario's comment erased these people from the picture. It also erased the very, very many Autistic people who do have any form of functional expressive communication or speech.

Fourth, Mr. Rosario demonstrates his lack of familiarity with the Autistic adult community with his comment that only "a child who doesn't know any better" would make such a hurtful comment trying to use the word "Autistic" as an insult. As I and many of my Autistic and ally friends and acquaintances know very well, "that kind of crap" comes all too frequently from adults, including adults who you'd think would know better--the kind of service providers who look derisively at their Autistic clients and consumers as passive and incapable of making decisions for themselves, the kind of educators who think of their Autistic students as walking behavior problems better referred to juvenile justice, the kind of professionals and researchers who think of their Autistic clients as a walking list of deficits, and the kind of non-Autistic parents of Autistic children who de-legitimize Autistic adults by saying that because we are Autistic, our opinions must be black-and-white and incapable of acknowledging the validity of others' ideas.

For this one, I don't blame Mr. Rosario. Most well-meaning outsiders might come to a similar conclusion--at least until they enter the vicious world of Autismland and witness firsthand the never-ending onslaught of de-legitimization and silencing that we Autistics struggle to survive every day. Yet it's not enough to merely witness it. One must come to understand how the tactics of silencing and de-legitimization do real harm to the Autistic community and ultimately pose a real danger to all of us, especially when it happens in the guise of supporting or helping us. Paternalism must be recognized, must be called out, wherever and whenever it happens. In the absence of this, it will continue to perpetuate itself and fester even among those who genuinely want to support the Autistic community--and that is a dangerous idea indeed.


  1. What's in a name? For a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet. A chair is not a chair in France. Autism is a term for a neurological communication disorder diagnosed through the presence of certain behavioral characteristics. However, I think even-so, someone diagnosed with Autism is not Autistic or an Autistic...they are a person.

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  2. @Amy: seriously, the whole "'autistic' versus 'with autism'" thing? covered in another post. please stop telling us what to call ourselves. you have just presented a textbook example of paternalism, so congrats.


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    1. Thank you, Mklein. I agree.
      @ Amy: You are quite correct that I am a person; an Autistic person. Who are you to try and tell Autistic people (and people with Autism, those who wish to be called that) what we are to call ourselves?

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