Sticks and Stones

So I got into a Twitter fight last night. The details aren’t important but what’s behind the thing that started it is. And even though it’s resolved now (which is why I’m being vague, because I don’t want to start things up again), I’m still upset about what led to it.

I’ve been noticing a trend lately where people are starting to use autism as the easy target for jokes. Autism (and Asperger’s, more often) are common enough now that people think they know what it is, and it’s something different for them to be able to poke fun of. That sucks, and it needs to stop.

I live with autism every day, raising my two daughters who are on the spectrum. Every day I think about how I’m going to help them learn to work with what makes them different, to adapt despite it when they need to, and to take advantage of the benefits it gives them whenever they’re able to. But I recognize that this is going to be a hard road for them. I’m dreading high school for them in particular, because I remember how hard it was for me just as a neurotypical standard nerd, let alone having a neurological condition complicating any efforts to navigate that particular social minefield.

And this is small potatoes compared to what lower functioning kids and their parents are up against. I’ve read enough stories in the last couple of months about autistic kids who are no longer with us for no other reason than having the misfortune of being born to parents who made terrible decisions they can’t take back, and that routinely scares the crap out of me. So when I see people actively making the world a harder place to exist in for my kids, be it from thoughtlessness or for a cheap laugh, it makes me extremely angry.

Autism is not a slur. It’s a fact of life for a growing number of people, and it’s not something that can be changed. Just because someone processes the world differently than you do doesn’t make them fair game. When you treat them as a sideshow to be mocked, you actively make the world a more difficult place for my kids to exist in. And I’m going to call that out, because that’s not OK under any circumstances.

Basically, if you’re thinking of using a word like “autistic” or “Aspergy” (blech) or any variation of those in a derogatory way, I’d ask you to reconsider what it is you’re trying to say. Pretty much, if you could use “retarded” in that sentence and have it have the same effect, stop and think for a minute. You wouldn’t use that word, right? It’s the same thing, and it has the same effect, only for a different group of people.

It’s important for me to say that if you’ve used one of those words in that context before, that doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. Everyone has their blind spots; I’ve certainly said my fair share of things that were unintentionally offensive without realizing. (Just recently, I made an offhand comment about having PTSD about video game Kickstarters that I needed to have pointed out to me why that was offensive; I immediately apologized and haven’t used the term in that way since.) The difference is continuing to use the words that way once you know, or to let it slide when others use it.

I’m done staying quiet about this. If we’re ever going to get to a place where autistic people can exist in society just as well as neurotypical typical people can, we can’t be allowing the simple fact that they are autistic to be used to remind them that they don’t belong. So I’m going to call that out when I see that from now on. I hope you will too.