My Autism Is Not a Hemorrhoid
Excuuuuse us if we're being politically incorrect by not calling this event "a day for people with an unmentionable abnormality to whisper about it." Or perhaps "a day for people who have autism, but who would never dream of being defined by it, to wish that nobody would talk about it because it's just too embarrassing to mention."
This rant about person-first language is brought to you by the letter H and a blog entry entitled My Husband the Hemorrhoid, which I came across while I was browsing through the many posts written for Blogging Against Disablism Day. In this particular entry, the author writes about how annoyed she felt when a mother said that her son "is ADD" while introducing him:
When did it become acceptable to introduce our children by their physical and/or mental capabilities? When did it become the norm to define our children by a condition? I can't think of any moment in a polite and civilized society where we would treat another adult this way.
"Hi, I'd like you to meet my friend Betty. She's a toe fungus!" Blech.
The author goes on to proclaim that a child's diagnosis is nobody's business—that it is personal information and that a parent is showing "disrespect" for the child by mentioning it to others. The post concludes with this statement:
...the next time a (mother) introduces me to her child and says "He's ADD/Autistic/Mentally Retarded", etc, I'm going to shake her hand.
Then I'm going to turn to my much beloved and beleaguered spouse and say, "I'd like you to meet my husband. He's a hemorrhoid."
I mean you've got to make a stand somewhere.
I'm sure this blogger (who identifies herself as a mother of a child who "has autism") wrote that post with the best of intentions. I'm sure she genuinely believes that it's more respectful to stay quiet, to keep all abnormalities forever tucked away behind a tightly shut closet door, and to lump neurological differences into the same embarrassing and unmentionable category as toe fungus and hemorrhoids, than it is to talk about them in a matter-of-fact way.
But she is wrong. The whole concept of using person-first language to gloss over what the majority regards as shameful and undesirable traits is wrong. Our society is never going to overcome its prejudices as long as we awkwardly dance around the fact that we have fundamental and lifelong differences.
My autism is not a hemorrhoid. It is an intrinsic part of my identity, like my gender, my nationality, and my hair color. Actually, it's much more a part of my identity than my hair color, which can be changed in an hour at the beauty salon. So why is it that some people think it's perfectly fine to describe me as a brunette, but "disrespectful" to describe me as an autistic? Presumably it's because they consider my hair color (even if it comes out of a bottle) to be a normal attribute, whereas they view my autism as a tragic misfortune that cannot be politely mentioned.
Using person-first language is the semantic equivalent of averting one's eyes when somebody comes into the room in a wheelchair or on crutches. It reflects prejudice, awkwardness, discomfort, and a negative value judgment.
Autism experts Tony Attwood and Carol Gray have written an article called The Discovery of "Aspie" Criteria, in which they discuss how the diagnostic criteria could be worded in positive terms and also make this observation:
In referring to people with respect to their talents or abilities, politically correct "people first" terminology is not required; labels like musician, artist, or poet are welcomed and considered complimentary.
In the world that I want to live in, it would be just as acceptable and unremarkable for a mother to say that her child is autistic as it would be for her to say that the child is a gymnast, a dog lover, or a stamp collector. And the person to whom the child is introduced would just smile and say, "Nice to meet you."