Why language matters

by Adam O’Loughlin
Head of Policy & Service Delivery | National Police Autism Association

Adam, do you prefer being referred to as being autistic or as having autism? The truth is that I’m equally unoffended by either, but if I had to choose, I would tell you that in my particular case, autistic is something I am, rather than autism being something I have. And it’s fair to say that to a great many people, how we talk about neurodiversity and the language we use really matters.

While ‘person-first’ language was long considered the most progressive way to talk about neurodiversity and disability, in recent years in the autistic and the wider disabled community, ‘identity-first’ language has become more prominent. These days many neurodiverse people see their neurology as an integral part of who they are – not a separate or negative add-on – and believe neurodiversity-positive language promotes equality and acceptance. Identity-first language tells society that we should be respected along with our differences, not in spite of them.

We should, of course, respect the right of everyone to choose the language that suits them and as a front line emergency service, we have to find a way to navigate the language around neurodiversity which is respectful to everyone. And that means that where possible, I believe we should use identity-first language. Here are the reasons why:

  • Language shapes attitudes. On far too many occasions I’ve seen language used that makes me cringe and is borderline offensive. We must stop saying things like ‘suffers from’ or ‘living with’ autism or other neurodiverse conditions, which clearly disrespect the people to whom they refer.
  • This change has been led by people with disabilities, and you may have heard the expression ‘nothing about us without us’ before. For far too long, the neurodiverse community in particular has had to put up with pejorative language being imposed upon them by people who aren’t affected by it. If this is what our communities are telling us, we should listen.

I also believe we need to get away from using functioning labels, as the overriding consensus is that they do far more harm than good. I’ll use autism as a good example of this. Realistically, there is no such disparity as simple as high or low functioning autism. Autism is a spectrum and we all function highly in some aspects and less well in others. Functioning in any one area can even fluctuate day-to-day depending on environment, accommodations and other factors. For example, an autistic person may perform a highly specialised task to an incredibly high standard when in a suitable environment, but be completely unable to perform the same task in an open-plan office surrounded by noise, activity and bright lights. They may instead appear surprisingly ‘low-functioning’.

Labelling a person as low-functioning dismisses their abilities, and labelling them as high-functioning dismisses their struggles. ‘Low functioning’ implies that the autistic life is a tragedy and a burden, and ‘high functioning’ is often mistaken to mean having savant abilities or to be only mildly or temporarily autistic. This is a vastly over-simplified and detrimental understanding of autistic people.

So please, try not to use functioning labels if you can. ∎

This blog was originally published on the Avon & Somerset Police intranet