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The Difference Between Being Autistic and Having Autism

Why I Only Say My Son Is Autistic Sometimes

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.

Source: Shutterstock

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.

Join The Conversation
I just found that my son has ASD and I am looking for some support this is obviously a hard situation and could use some support on how to deal with this. I would appreciate what ever you can give Sincerely Melissa Giebner
CoMMember13627330234912 CoMMember13627330234912 4 years
My son is 10 years old and non-verbal he is autistic and thats what I tell the police when he runs as he is low functioning. I love my son but I need him to be safe.
brandymiller53518 brandymiller53518 4 years
my 8 year old son is autistic. we use the word autism and autistic all the time. He knows he has autism and so does his 9 year old brother and everyone at his school. its not a bad word! its only neg. if you let it be neg. he asked me the other day, was he bad for being autistic? of course not hunny.. your only bad when you do something naughty for the sake of being naughty! then he caught me off guard one day, by saying his autism was acting up, was why he was being so silly! that was the day it hit home that he realized he was dif. from other children. I sat down with him, and we had a very frank talk. I told him his autism was not a bad thing at all. It made him, well him. I told him how very special he is, and how i wouldnt change him for the world. I explained that his autism just made him see the world in a dif way than most other people and there was nothing wrong with that. im very open about his autism. especially with other children. When they know that Ben has a ASD and that is why he sometimes behaves the way he does, they accept it. He has never been bullied. He has loads of friends! his peers look out for him, and help him when he struggles because we have made the effort for them to understand, that while he sees things in a dif. light to them sometimes... that there is nothing wrong with him, but that he just needs a little extra help and patience.
JaneMcCabe JaneMcCabe 4 years
Great article Amanda! I have to say I agree with every point you made. I also think we have taken political correctness to a whole new level, that it was never meant to be at. My son has been diagnosed with Childhood Apraxia of Speech, which is a complicated way of saying he has (had) a speech delay. While I would never want him to be treated differently in a bad way because of this, I acknowledge he does need to be treated different, especially in school. And to be honest, I dont know a child that wouldnt benefit from an individualized education plan (IEP)! Thanks for the honest, and refreshing views you stated in this article.
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