My oldest son has Asperger’s syndrome, often called high-functioning autism. He’s a lot of things — bright, funny, confounding, and analytical — but to some people he will never be autistic. It’s a matter of language. Person first language, to be exact.
Person first language is the reason why it’s so taboo to call someone with mental retardation "retarded." It’s the reason we describe someone as having mental illnesses instead of as mentally ill, which is more reductive. In short, person first language says the person comes first, not the disability.
When Does the Person Come First?
Some Circle of Moms members say it’s never okay to use your child’s disability as an adjective, but I’m not so sure that’s true. In theory, I agree. I think we need to see people as a collection of their traits, not as defined by their deficits. I wonder though: Why is it okay to say I have a gifted child and not okay to say my child has high intelligence? Why is person first language only an issue when we’re talking about traits that might be perceived as negative?
Keep reading Why I Only Say My Son is Autistic Sometimes.
The truth is, most of the time when I talk about my son's disability, I say he has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, because his disability usually doesn’t come first. But there are times when it does. There are days when he’s very frustrated, distracted, hard to reach and doesn’t pay as much attention to his hygiene. On those days, as much as it upsets me, I see his disability more than I see him. Those are the days when I would say my son is autistic.
Does Intent Matter?
Mom Malathi S., who posted a thread in a Circle of Moms community asking people not to use their child’s disability as an adjective, surely would disagree with my decision to characterize him that way. She says we need to be sensitive to children's needs, including their need for respect.
She’s right, everyone deserves respect, but I don’t think neglecting to use person first language is always a matter of disrespect. I think the intent behind the language should also be considered.
Circle of Moms member Elizabeth has a child with Down Syndrome. She says that although she wouldn’t want people to call her son the now forbidden ‘R’ word with mean intent, she thinks society overanalyzes the use of such words. Mom Brenda H. agrees, saying, "Most people mean well, but might not get the terminology."
Some moms say that’s no excuse, that it’s up to parents like us to educate others about the correct terminology. Take for instance, Amy W. who, like me, has a son with autism. She says when people ask her if she has an autistic son she replies, "I have a son with autism, yes."
I understand and applaud her intent. She wants people to get to know her son, not make assumptions about him because of his disability, which, to my mind shows how much she respects her child.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
At the same time, though, I also understand Circle of Moms member Kate C. when says she thinks we've taken political correctness to a whole new level. She thinks that how parents refer to their children should be their own choice.
When I choose to say my son is autistic, I don’t do it out of malice. It’s more of shorthand way of letting the important people in his life know when he's having a rough day. When he's doing well, it's very easy to forget he has deficits or even that he has autism, but he still needs the same support and treatment.
In the end, what matters to me is how people treat him, and if that means I have to remind them that sometimes his disability overshadows him, so be it. I'm just glad my son isn't always autistic.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.