Too often well-meaning journalists get it wrong when they write about autism. It's not so much the content of their stories that misses the mark as the language they use to describe autism itself.
It can be easy to unintentionally offend -- or worse, misrepresent -- the autism community they are meant to be describing.
Why does it matter?
Media stories that get it wrong can contribute to how others perceive those with autism -- and even perpetuate potentially dangerous stereotypes. For this reason, Autism Canada has recently developed a guide to help journalists navigate the language of autism in a balanced and accurate manner.
The guide also contains a few important facts that everyone should know about autism and will help you separate fact from fiction.
Autism is not an 'enemy' or a 'gift'
Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological condition that impacts brain development and is characterized by communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions, a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour and a markedly restricted repertoire of activity and interests.
While it may be more dramatic for a news story to call for a "war on autism," this portrays autism as an enemy to be defeated, not a condition that someone lives with on a daily basis that may confer identity and that may include benefits too.
At the same time, however, living with autism can be a daily struggle for many individuals and their families -- so media depictions of autism as a special "gift" are not balanced depictions either.
In other words, autism is often associated with both positive and negative attributes for those affected by it and the families that support them. It is complex and multifaceted. So don't buy into depictions of autism that too often oversimplify the lived experience.
Living with autism is not hopeless
A great many more supports are available for individuals with autism and their families than in past decades. It is very rare where nothing can be done to improve the quality of life and functional capacity of an autistic person. Reject depictions that imply nothing can be done for individuals with autism or depict the outlook or potential of an autistic life as bleak.
There are now evidence-based supports and options available that can improve the health and independence of those with autism.
Autism also intersects with many other complicated social issues such as health and wellbeing, education and employment, acceptance and identity. Be sure to separate out what is autism and what is often thrust upon those with autism but could be changed through social, economic and community supports or even a change in outlook.
Avoid terms that are demeaning
Terms such as 'slow,' 'simple,' 'special,' or 'abnormal' are inaccurate and demeaning. Autistic individuals are different. Their minds work differently. When talking about someone with autism, you can acknowledge or describe the challenges they face without defining them as lacking or deviating from the norm.
Acknowledging the person is paramount
When you talk about someone with autism, keep in mind that you are discussing an individual and not just a neurobiological condition. You can be respectful of the individual by using such terms as "has autism," "is autistic" or "is on the autism spectrum." Avoid saying "suffers from autism" because this assumes that autism is a negative part of a person's life.
Looks can be deceiving
Individuals who have autism don't look a certain way. Describing someone by saying that "they don't look like they have autism" can leave the impression that they don't deserve the supports they need. You can learn a lot by asking individuals with autism how autism affects them instead, and their families, and what type of supports or accommodations they require.
Reflecting on autism in a more nuanced manner using these basic pointers can help you avoid simplistic depictions and understand the true, lived experiences of those on the autism spectrum and those who support them.
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