Why Inclusive Language is Important Within the Autism Community
March 25, 2022
Hopebridge Works to Break Down Ableist Language and Foster Inclusion
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” right? Wrong. Words have meaning. Words matter. While some terminology may fall into a “tom-ay-to or tom-ah-to” category, there are other words that can have a greater impact on those around us.
In the spirit of Autism Awareness, Acceptance and Advocacy Month (A4 Month), we turned to Hopebridge Westlake Center Manager Ashley Clarke to help us break down barriers – along with insensitive and outdated word choices – through language that is inclusive and respectful of the population we serve. Prior to serving in her role as center manager, Ashley started as a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT), as well as led teams as an ABA Trainer and assistant manager, which gives her perspective on this subject from a few different angles and roles.
If you’re interested in learning more about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as others who may differ from you regarding abilities, background, culture, race, gender or in a multitude of other ways, we urge you to read on …
Hopebridge Autism Therapy Centers’ Inclusive Language Guide
Understanding that language is constantly evolving, we put together a guide intended to support others (as well as ourselves!) on our journey to shift terminology to remove bias and stigma. Much of our focus in the guide is around ableism, which is a prejudice against people with disabilities; often an assumption that people with different abilities (or the lack thereof) are defined by them.
It’s important to remember that there is not only one correct way to say something, but if all of us put in the work to educate ourselves, we hope we can better understand each other and enhance our vocabulary to be all-encompassing, whenever possible.
Here are some examples of alternative phrases we can use to be more mindful of our language and make the space around us more inclusive:
“Autistic child” → “Child with autism” This one can be a bit controversial, but at Hopebridge, we prefer to use people-first language when referencing someone diagnosed with autism. Ashley tells us: “We do this because we feel the individual is more than their disability or disorder. In my conversations, I encourage others to use people-first language because they may not know what they’re saying can be offensive to others.” That being said, she also noted that this is how we initially refer to individuals with autism, but opening the dialogue is key. Each individual has their own identity preferences, and some self-advocates prefer identity-first language, so it’s a good idea to ask rather than assume.
“I’m so ADHD right now.” → “I’m a little distracted.” ADHD is a diagnosis, not a feeling or reason to tease about if the individual is not diagnosed with it. They mean more than a momentary lapse in memory or distraction. The same goes for other medical conditions or mental health disorders (e.g. diabetes, bipolar disorder). While phrases that mention ADHD like this are usually intended to lighten up a situation, it’s best not to joke about them if you do not personally experience them, as they minimize the symptoms of someone who has the diagnosis.
“They’re crazy!” → “What they’re doing looks silly.” Please don’t feel bad if you use this term, as even advocates have the opportunity to learn more. Instead, use it as a moment to educate yourself and update your language! This one is embedded into many people’s vocabulary, but in order to release the stigma around mental illness and mental health, Ashley suggests replacing words like “crazy” and “insane” with other terms like “silly,” “wild” or “outrageous.”
“Nonverbal” → “Non-speaking” While the term, “nonverbal,” is common in the autism world, is typically more accurate “non-speaking” when referring to an individual who does not vocally communicate. “Non-speaking” is broader, recognizes receptive language, and includes those who use AAC devices or sign-language to communicate. It also does not exclude those who are able to speak, but choose not to do so. “We had one child in the center who had selective mutism and would talk to small children, but not adults. After being here for almost a year, the first time we heard his voice was when we put the ear to the door as he spoke to another child. Our words need to include people in situations like his, too,” Ashley said. What’s even better than either of these terms? Ashley would like to see our community pivot to referring to what the child uses as a communication modality, rather than focusing on their lack of speaking.
“He doesn’t look autistic …” → “How does autism impact him?” Here’s a reminder that autism doesn’t have a physical “look” and impacts individuals in various ways. If someone tells you their child has autism, rather than assuming or commenting on the disorder or child based on stereotypes, use the opportunity to learn more. More appropriate responses could be: “Would you like to talk about it?” or “Is there anything I can do to better support him or you?”
“African-American” → “What do you prefer I refer to you as?” Our words should not only be inclusive of those in the autism population, but also mindful of others across all races, cultures and genders. We must start by saying that “African-American” is a perfectly appropriate term when it is used accurately. When describing someone else’s skin color or discussing race, however, Ashley recommends asking the person you are speaking to about their preferences. “The people we work with come from all different types of backgrounds. Where we come from can vary, which is sometimes misunderstood when it comes to brown people. You shouldn’t always say, ‘African-American.’ I am brown, but I may be from Jamaica or anywhere else in the world.” As a general rule, using the word “colored” is also not considered acceptable to describe a person of color.
“Hey, guys” → “Hey, friends” This is another example that is often overlooked. Ashley mentions that while it may seem small to some, using gender-neutral language can feel significant to others. Using alternatives like “team,” “friends,” “y’all,” “you both,” and “folks” to address groups of people are more inclusive and have less gender bias than “you guys.”
Tips for Enhancing Language While Removing Ableist Terminology
“It’s hard to remember all the little things, but start trying and it will get easier over time,” encourages Ashley.
Here are Ashley’s three simple tips for tweaking your language:
Seek out more information about inclusive language … Take the time to read books, watch TED Talks, or attend a workshop or seminar on the subjects you’re interested in learning more about. Even taking as little as 15 extra minutes to educate yourself can be beneficial.
… but don’t believe everything you read. Make sure you’re getting your information from reputable sources. This is especially true concerning autism and ABA therapy, as not every kiddo’s successes will look the same. It’s a wide spectrum, so be mindful before asking questions like, “why is she talking and he is not?”
Just ask! You won’t know unless you ask, so if you’re not sure how to refer to someone or want to know more about what they’re experiencing, ask if they are open to sharing their preferences or more information. If you don’t feel comfortable asking the person directly, consider asking one of their trusted friends or family members. Just by showing interest in another’s differences like this, you can positively affect others.
Engage in self-compassion. These terms have been part of the vernacular for a long time and we have a lot of learning history for some of them. As you shift our language and focus, give yourself grace. None of us will be perfect at first and should be mindful of the evolution in our language.
Learn More About Autism and Therapy with Hopebridge
Keep in mind, we are all still learning! Language is ever-changing, and the words we use to communicate now may get even more enhancements in the future.
At Hopebridge, we’re here to lift up our kiddos and help them discover their own ways to communicate their wants, needs and feelings to those around them. If you are a parent or caregiver interested in finding out more about autism and whether your child can benefit from our services, contact us.