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The language we use to talk about Autism matters

This past week, The Autism CRC Guidelines for supporting the learning, participation, and wellbeing of autistic children and their families in Australia were officially released. This is a wonderful step forward in neurodiversity affirming practice in Australia, expecially as the guidelines were largely informed by autistic adults. We have lots of thoughts on the wonderful support recommendations, but we wanted to start with a note on language

We know the language we use to talk about autism is important. Language and identity are inextricably linked, so we need to be considerate about the language we use to ensure it aligns with our values at The Happy Space. Here are some of our core takeaways from the guidelines, as well as recent research and reflections of autistic adults.

✅ Autistic person/child rather than "person/child with autism"

The guideline uses and recommends identity-first language. This is based on evidence from around the world, which indicates autistic adults prefer identity-first language (autistic person) rather than person-first language (person with autism). This is because autistic people consider autism to be a core part of their identity (i.e. you’re more likely to refer to yourself as an Australian person than a ‘person from Australia’). Obviously, every autistic person is different, and some people may prefer person first language. If someone tells you they would prefer you to use person first language - do just that! But in general, it is safest to begin with the consensus and go from there.

❌ “high-functioning” or “low-functioning”, instead use concise, accurate and specific language to summarise someone’s support needs.

Functioning labels (e.g. “high functioning” or “low functioning”), are also a quick short form that are common place in language between therapists. However, in reflection these are characterised as unhelpful and stigmatising. Functioning labels are vague and don’t tell us much about a person’s abilities at all. They often leave people characterised as “high-functioning” under supported, and people characterised as “low-functioning” underestimated. Language used to discuss disability should be concise, accurate and specific (e.g. this child communicates using words/gesture/AAC/vocalisations/etc. and requires assistance with activities of daily living such as toileting, personal safety, feeding, etc.).

✅ Autism rather than “ASD”

In the neurodiversity movement, brain-based and behavioural differences observed in autistic children are regarded as natural human variation. So, as neurodiversity affirming therapists, we try not to say “ASD” as we are moving away from considering autistic traits “disordered” - we can just say “autism”. We know autistic people can face substantial barriers to their learning, participation, and wellbeing. These barriers arise from societal factors, such as a lack of accessible environments that accomodate for these differences (remember the social model of disability!). So to say being autistic is not having a “disorder” is not to say that it is not difficult, it is just that the reason it is difficult is because of the way society is built.Non-speaking

"non-verbal", instead say non-speaking

Autistic people feel that “non-verbal” implies that the person is not able to communicate in any way which is untrue (they often have lots of other forms of communication! Think AAC, gesture, pointing, vocalisations). To be accurate about what we are truly trying to communicate, we will say "non-speaking", we can go even further and be specific and say "this child uses mainly vocalisations and gesture to communicate".

All if this is to say, in clinic, at The Happy Space (and elsewhere!), we will always try to be mindful of the language we use. We are always looking to learn from people with lived experience of neurodiversity and adapt, so that everyone feels safe and HAPPY in our space.

P.S. Tell your friends - politely pull them up on the language they use! When you know better, you do better.

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