Last weekend I saw a news piece about a 13-year-old autistic boy who saved a choking girl’s life using a move he learned from the popular animated television series “Spongebob Squarepants.” The girl he saved was also autistic. It was the type of unimportant, feel-good story that is often stuffed between pieces on what household appliance or seemingly harmless activity or food product is coming to kill us next.
But what caught my attention is the unnecessary inclusion of the subject’s diagnosis. Both the individuals involved were identified by most news outlets specifically by their autism. Both individuals are verbal and seemingly articulate. They’re both established as being fairly intelligent. Their diagnoses had little to nothing to do with what occurred. In fact, I’d call it the very definition of superfluous. The only purpose that the diagnosis served was to demean the accomplishment of the subject.
Please note that I do not believe that the news stations that covered this piece are ableist or bigoted. I do not wish for anyone to take this to be an attack on these specific news organizations. Rather, I want to use a news piece, which I acknowledge is not a very big deal, to engage in a meaningful critique on how the news portrays individuals on the spectrum. My goal here is not to point fingers, but to ask questions.I also acknowledge how hypocritical it might seem for me to engage in this form of political correctness, which I have established opposition to in my previous articles. But I’d like to clarify that I stand in favor of an intellectual critique of language and how it can disenfranchise people. I merely oppose attempts to suppress dissent under the ironic guise of being inclusive.To begin with, many of the news stations that covered this story referred to the subject as a “boy with autism.” I have encountered person-first language a great deal both online and in the course of daily living, and I don’t believe that neurotypical people quite understand the implications of this term.
Suppose the subject was not autistic, but homosexual. They’d call him a gay teenager not a “boy with homosexuality” or “boy with the gay.” Those terms are objectively quite silly, but what is the actual difference between saying “he’s a homosexual” and “he’s a person with homosexuality”? The difference is that the former feels like a way a person identifies themselves, while the latter feels like a disease.And it is not uncommon for disease-like language to be used in order to describe autistic individuals. Many frequently refer to autism as an “epidemic.” Autism Speaks claims that it affects more people than “diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, or Down syndrome – combined.”
But unlike most people suffering from these sicknesses, the large majority of autistics don’t want to be cured. Autism isn’t a disease or disability but a measure of one’s identity. Person-first language, in its effort to be inclusive, characterizes autism as something undesirable, which is not the reality of the situation.
I’d now like to turn your attention to the obligation of the news sites to go into the boy’s diagnosis. While promoting children like this may be well-intentioned, it also affects the public’s perception of autistics.News pieces are often celebratory of the minor things autistics do, and then they deny autistic individuals’ capacity for greater accomplishments. By associating autism with stories like this rather than stories about Albert Einstein or Thomas Jefferson, the media creates a perception that the former’s achievements are the most that they can aspire to.
Compare that news story with a more fictional account of autism, The Big Bang Theory. The series stars Jim Parsons as the obviously autistic Sheldon Cooper. But Dr. Cooper has remained in the closet about his diagnosis, with the show’s writers denying it at every turn.
This is perhaps because they wish to avoid the ire of offended parents. It is easy to see how some parents could view Sheldon Cooper negatively, but I personally find Dr. Cooper inspiring. Here’s an autistic individual who has a good job, plenty of friends and a girlfriend who adores him. This is a person who rose out of a family that didn’t understand him and a community that hated him to become a success. Yes, he’s a pain in the ass sometimes, but his charm and success overrides his numerous idiosyncracies. I can’t think of a more positive portrayal of autistic individuals.But positive portrayals of big successes remain closeted, their diagnosis only alluded to, while positive portrayals of small successes can stay open. Why do we see so many articles on autistic individuals doing unremarkable things while the extraordinary autistics are forced into the closet?It is time for a larger critique of the way autistic individuals are represented in the media. We must engage in a thorough examination of how the language we use affects the public’s perception of autistic individuals.
Does that mean pieces like this one of the choking incident can’t exist? Of course not. Does that mean they can exist but they can never mention that the subject is autistic? That’d be silly. What it does mean is that stories like this should be careful with the language they use and that they should not be the only positive exposure that the public has to autistics. There should be an acknowledgment that many great intellectuals, like Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson, are on the spectrum. We should be celebrating autistic people who changed the world. We should be promoting people to be openly autistic, like Dan Aykroyd, and to publicly identify with elements of the spectrum, like Jerry Seinfeld.