Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Forecast: Less Mild

Originally posted December 2005

The Autistic Bitch from Hell wishes a jolly white Christmas to readers in snowy climates, a pleasant holiday season to all, and a prosperous New Year 2006.

For the occasion, I'll discuss one of the milder items on my long list of linguistic pet peeves: the characterization of Asperger's as "mild autism." A sunny winter day can be mild, and so can barbecue sauce, salsa dip, a headache, or an annoyance, but it's totally wrong and offensive to describe the characteristics of a minority group as mild.

This sort of language has become a favorite tool of denial among folks who are ashamed of their autism or that of a family member. My child, they say, has Asperger's, but it's a very mild form of autism; my son or daughter is not like those other autistics who bang their heads on the floor, or sit in a corner rocking all day long, or [insert autism stereotype of your choice]. No, those poor unfortunates are different.

Of course, there really is no distinct dividing line between Asperger's and the other arbitrarily defined diagnostic categories. The only difference is the age at which a child learns to speak, which may be relevant in determining whether a child can benefit from speech therapy but means next to nothing in other contexts. Any autistic person, or any human being for that matter, can develop self-injurious or other problematic behaviors when placed in a stressful environment. Even zoo animals will injure themselves, pace back and forth in their cages, or curl up anxiously in corners if they are under too much stress.

When such behaviors are falsely characterized as unique symptoms of a tragic disorder, "severe autism," the repercussions are harmful to all autistics. Those with the Asperger's diagnosis may be
denied access to services because of the mistaken view that they can have only mild problems. Conversely, autistics who fall into other diagnostic categories are at risk of being written off as worthless burdens to society. And the prevalence of "severe autism" stereotypes, often perpetuated by nonprofit groups that drum up publicity for their fundraising activities by depicting autism in the most pathetic light imaginable, has caused many people to support eugenics research to eliminate the entire autistic population by means of prenatal testing and abortion.

Even those who argue against eugenic abortion sometimes fall into the trap of characterizing Asperger's as a mild form of autism when they discuss the potential loss of autistic geniuses. A particularly controversial article in this category is
Would You Have Allowed Bill Gates To Be Born? by Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics. The following statement from the article has been criticized as implying that only those in the Asperger's category, but not other autistics, deserve to be allowed to live:

"How can we draw lines between disabling diseases such as severe autism and more mild differences such as Asperger’s, which may give society some of its greatest achievers?"

I'll give Caplan the benefit of the doubt on that, as his article seems to be intended to stir up social debate, rather than to advocate any particular course of action. Still, he should have been more careful with his language. Suggesting that a certain class of people may have less value to society because of "severe autism" is odious (whether or not that's how he meant it) and can only exacerbate society's prejudices against autistics in general.

And what's more, trying to distinguish between "severe autism" and other forms of autism is a completely pointless exercise. There are no logical criteria that could support such a distinction.
Self-injury, as mentioned above, is a reaction to emotional stress, and the majority of people who self-injure are not autistic. Level of need for disability services is not a meaningful yardstick, either, because there are so many variables in the social and physical environment that can affect a person's need for services at any given time. As for lack of speech, there are mute autistics who can communicate just fine through a computer keyboard or other device, and some of them live independently and hold full-time professional jobs. IQ tests? Don't even get me started on a rant about the utter worthlessness of those putrid things.

As the website
Getting the Truth Out declares, "not being able to speak is not the same as having nothing to say."

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