26 July 2012

On Ableism in the Autism and Autistic Communities

It's everywhere.

"Autism isn't mental illness. We're not like those people."

"It wasn't an autistic person who would commit mass murder. Only people with actual mental illness, like psychopaths or schizophrenics do that kind of thing."

"Those ideas are insane!"

"Autism Speaks's idea of representing Autistic people is absolutely crazy."

"People who want to give their kids bleach enemas are just nuts. Their ideas are nuts."

It comes not merely from Autistics and non-Autistic parents and professionals and researchers but also from Autistics and non-Autistic parents and professionals and researchers who are disability rights advocates and activists.

I don't believe in vilifying people who aren't aware (yet) of their privilege and who don't have malicious intent when they use ableist language that denigrates people with mental or psychiatric disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or developmental disabilities. But I do believe in actively educating people about where these words come from--crazy, insane, loony, nuts, stupid, idiotic, moron, imbecile, retarded--and once someone knows the connotations of a word, it's their prerogative to decide whether they care to actively combat their own ableism or continue to perpetuate it through their language.

And it's absolutely disgusting when this type of ableism comes from the mouths of those who, of all people, ought to know better. If you're the average twenty-year-old class and ability privileged college student who has never heard of ableism and has never considered the origins of the word "insane," fine, I can give you some slack until someone tells you that the word "insane" was used as a diagnostic label to perpetuate discrimination, prejudice, and stigma against millions of people and you continue to use it. But if you're a disability rights advocate or activist, there is no reason whatsoever that you should be using such stigmatizing and othering language, especially if you've been told by other people that your language is ableist.

Take the humble pill, recognize your own strands of ableism, and stop using the ableist language. You are NOT benefiting yourself or any of the people whom you claim to represent or on whose behalf you claim to advocate because the language that you are using is directly contributing to attitudinal and societal barriers to equality, access, and opportunity for millions of people with mental or psychiatric disabilities. If you've been told--and I know many of you have been told repeatedly because I was the one who told you--that your language is ableist, then you need to stop using it. It is not okay to refer to ideas and people with whom you disagree as insane or crazy or nuts or loony because those are hateful and hurtful words just as much as the word retarded.


  1. Just wrote an epic reply and realised I was being very antagonistic. Not my aim.
    I don't think of those words as being hateful, they apply to me at certain times and I often believe they apply to the decisions and structures imposed by many institutions.
    I am just as happy to say "that assessment was nuts" or "you behaved like a crazy person last night" as I am saying "Hi I'm Hannah, sometimes I'm insane, medical records verify that"
    What am I missing?

    1. I'll take just a moment to address one of your points--when referring to yourself in that way, that's not ableism so much as language reclamation. Prod me if you want a response to the rest later.

    2. But reclamation refers to using words *differently* than their original pejorative use, most famous case "nigga" from "nigger." Hannah (correct me if I'm wrong) does not seem to view the words as pejorative, but descriptive with no power connotation. I'm inclined to agree that the words' meanings are strong enough that negative connotations are secondary.


    3. Thanks Stephanie,
      That's more my meaning.
      Meaning is socially constructed, so the meaning that my siblings and I create when we laugh about how we are all mental is one of shared experience and belonging.
      It would not be appropriate for a news reporter to describe a public suicide the same way, not in a million years.
      I would not use language that belongs to a strictly medical discourse in a jovial way, I wouldn't use the word "bipolar" or "affectively impaired" to describe anything or anyone. But I would say that someone or something is "crazy".
      The social use of the word "insane" is to describe a deviation from something that makes sense and that's fine by me.
      Like Stephanie says the negative connotations are secondary.

  2. Lydia,

    Thanks for exposing the reality of the pecking order, in a world with many variations of disabilities.

    I do think that people in the autism community should be able to identify with this issue better than the general public, and set the example.

    Rarely is it that this issue is even discussed or taken seriously. This type of attitude and language can affect individuals with mental illnesses the same way similar language affects people on the spectrum. Not all individuals, but certainly many, including many on the spectrum.


  3. Speaking as someone who is actually autistic... While all of the examples of ableist speech you posted would be hurtful, I think the first two could truly be classified as 'harmful'. Both of those statements are alleging that there is some sort of superiority inherent in having autism compared to having MI, that people with MI are more likely to be the perpetrators of crimes rather than the victims of crimes, and that's just wrong. The others are definitely problematic in their use of ableist words to describe something as bad, unwise etc, but at least they're speaking up about actual issues facing autistic people rather than trying to make out like some disabilities are 'better' than others. And whether we like it or not, words like 'crazy' 'insane' 'nuts' etc have been entrenched in our culture and language as ways to describe unwise or thoughtless attitudes and behaviour, and even for those who are aware, it will take time to disconnect those words from those meanings.

    1. Interestingly, I just posted at LBRB chastising a poster for complaining about autism being lumped in with mental illness and allegedly leading to Joe Scarborough's ignorant remarks.

      I try really hard to avoid using mental-health labels as slurs. I've been on the receiving end enough to know it hurts.

      If someone's being irrational, I can say they aren't making sense, not that they're delusional. If something is over the top, I try to say it's extreme, not crazy.

      I boycott a local donut shop called Psycho Donuts because they took the whole extreme+weird=crazy and came up with a whole theme restaurant based on Hollywood ideas about mental hospitals, to showcase oddball donuts they make. Stuff like using crushed Butterfinger bars to top chocolate-glazed donuts. A lot of my friends say I don't have a sense of humor if I can't appreciate them, but a lot of my other friends picketed the place when it opened.

      Now gimme my M&Ms for reinforcement! ;-)

    2. My point is that making an otherwise good and necessary point using ableist language completely dilutes your point. I loathe Autism Speaks and what it stands for. I'm appalled and horrified that anyone would think giving a child a bleach enema would be a good idea. But using ableist language to attack those things is full of such irony and hypocrisy that it's incomprehensible.

    3. I agree with you that using ableist slurs to speak up for autistics is particularly wrong and hypocritical. That is why I was chastising the poster at LBRB who was complaining that autistics are not mentally ill, therefore that is the only reason it is wrong for Morning Joe to say what he said.

      I also try not to use ableist slurs in everyday life.

  4. This is really problematic. I'm autistic. I also have had several mental illnesses at different points in my life. I don't really consider autism to be a mental illness but the distinction for me isn't that people with mental illnesses is somehow worse or less valuable, but that I want to get rid of my mental illnesses but not my autism. Because the former is hurting me.

    Although other people with mental illnesses as well as other people with autism might feel different, so that distinction probably doesn't work very well for everyone.

    Just... a lot of autistics are, actually, also part of "those people". If you talk like that, you're being ableistic against people with mental illnesses and you're also alienating autistics with mental illnesses. That's just bad.

    1. The point is not that "mental illness" is different from "developmental disability." It is. And it's fine to acknowledge that. The problems arise when the distinction is made with the underlying connotation that it's better to be Autistic than to have mental illness, and that people with mental illness are an undesirable other in and of themselves.

    2. Oh, I got that and I completely agree.

  5. Yeah, I also have mental health issues and am on the spectrum. And I feel like the assumption is that people who use ableist language like "crazy" don't actually have mental health issues themselves, when the reality is that a lot of us are self-hating, unaware, or just don't care. A large number of the people I've heard say "crazy" or "insane"---not in a reclaimed way---have mental health issues themselves. And I used to be one of them. People like this are much harder to change because you have to talk them out of their internalized ableism (usually impossible because it's so ingrained). It's really frustrating to see so many fellow mad people continuing to use language that hurts them and others like them in the long run. And yes, they are often people who should know better. They are often people who fight other forms of oppression, but don't seem to care about ableism (towards people with any disability). And I think it's about time to acknowledge this, because it accounts for quite a few of the people who use this kind of ableist language, sadly.

  6. "But I do believe in actively educating people about where these words come from--crazy, insane, loony, nuts, stupid, idiotic, moron, imbecile, retarded" I was hoping that you would cover that in this post, as I don't know the origins of most of those. Crazy, insane, and retarded I know; loony just reminds me of "loony bin", so I can guess as to an original meaning; but I must admit that I had been using stupid and idiotic as general derogatories because I was under the impression that they did not have specific meanings the way dumb, retarded, and crazy have them. I suppose the five I would especially like explained are nuts, stupid, idiotic, moron, and imbecile, and currently my only guess for those is that imbecile might have something to do with a lack of coordination or clumsiness.

    1. Nuts is used to describe people with mental illness or mental or psychiatric disabilities (i.e. "gone nuts"). Stupid means "in a stupor," that is, having an intellectual disability.

      Idiot, moron, and imbecile were actually diagnostic terms used by professionals and clinicians to describe people with intellectual disabilities. Specifically, people with a tested IQ between 0 and 25 were diagnosed as idiots, people with a tested IQ between 26 and 50 were diagnosed as imbeciles, and people with a tested IQ between 51 and 70 were diagnosed as morons. Those three terms were replaced around the 1960's with the catch-all term "mental retardation," but prior to that, it was not uncommon for institution administrators and staff to ask of an incoming resident "what class of moron or imbecile is this person?"

    2. Could stupid also be used to describe someone in a drunken stupor?

    3. You can use it that way, but the reason the word is used to describe drunk people is because "they are acting like a stupid person," i.e. a person with an intellectual disability. That's the connotation of the term when used that way.

  7. My brother speaks a dialect where 'insane' and 'crazy' are highly complimentary descriptors or modifiers, usually for food, music or art. "Dude you have to come, their nachos are insaaane, perfect prelude to the crazy good Blue Man Group." What would you make of this usage? I am sincerely asking.

  8. Sorry but bleach enemas ARE crazy.

  9. I have 3 thoughts (at least!) in response to this:

    1) To Hannah, above, I tend to think like you do, but I recently read this wonderful quote that made me think twice about publicly using ablist language that I and my friends are comfortable with having reclaimed:

    "...when we talk about language usage, it’s worth considering how our use of language impacts others. Not the people we know, the people who assure us that our language is ok, but the people we don’t know. The people whom we are hurting with our careless language use. Eradicating ableist language is not about meeting some politically correct ideal (and when did “politically correct” become a pejorative), it’s about thinking about our actions and considering the ways in which they impact others."

    (from http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/10/12/ableist-word-profile-lame/)

    2) On somewhat the opposite side, there is this quote:

    "While I don't generally see a problem with changing language to be more inclusive, "absurd" and "crazy" pretty clearly aren't interchangeable. Is there another word that means what Greta has defined "crazy" as (ie. detached from reality and removed from normal society [the original phrasing was "radically out of step with cultural norms, or out of touch with reality"]) that does not have historically problematic usage? Otherwise, it might be better to work on removing the associations with mental illness from the word, since in my experience people are pretty reluctant to give up language if they have nothing to replace it with."

    (The original post is on a completely unrelated topic, but there is a wonderful debate about the use of the word "crazy" in the comments: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2011/05/are-all-religions-equally-crazy.html)

    3) As noted in the above quote, we do need a word or words to indicate that an idea strongly trespasses the boundaries of what can be considered reasonable or rational. Suggestions? Is calling an idea "crazy" as ablist as calling a person "crazy"? Are slang terms like "nuts," "loony," and "bat-shit" far enough divorced from describing clinical insanity to count as non-ablist?

    Sorry for the length of this comment.

    1. I am late running across this post, much less replying, but thank you Lydia for writing it.

      These usages are also hurtful to me, and probably a number of others with similar histories, because I am just old enough to have spent years in the psych system under an alphabet soup of labels before anyone knew to call it autism. (With added layers of PTSD and diabetes from some of the frustrated treatment received.) A lot of autistic have and/or have been assumed to have mental health problems. They may be different things, but one is not somehow better than the other. Hierarchies of disabilities suck as a concept, in general.

      abailin, in case you see this: I have had to think a lot about other ways of describing bizarre and possibly harmful ideas. It's far from perfect, but here's one take:

    2. That would be "a lot of autistics", plural, thanks to autocorrect and not being able to edit the comment.

  10. I am autistic but I am not disabled. Saying this is not true is just as insulting as when Autism Speaks says that we all need to be cured. In fact it is playing right in to the hands of curebies because a disability is a movement away from normal health with the body which is not a disease, and I am not disabled, but different.

    I am not disabled. Understanding that I don't have a mental health issue doesn't mean that I am insulting people with mental health issues. Accepting that something can be called a mental health problem when it actually isn't is a sign of intelligence. Believing in neurodiversity whilst insisting that all Autism is a disability is bad faith.

    Ableism is when you insult people for using a wheelchair or deny a man a job because they have ADHD. It doesn't mean claiming that Autistics do not do mass murders when psychopaths or psychotics do so

  11. Many defined/described diseases, illnesses and disorders are legally identified and defined as disabilities, per US code that enforces the American's with disabilities act, including Autism Spectrum disorders.

    If you don't live in the US, this may not be applicable, by technical legal standard, but it is in the US.

    The legal definition of Autism per disability per US code/legal description is a medical one per limits in brain function. The definition of disability per the ideology of neurodiversity/social model of disability, is one per the limits of society in providing accommodations, as disability is a natural part of life.

    So one can be identified by law as having Autism as a disability of limits in brain function, per legal/medical definition/description in the US, or identify themselves as Autistic with a disability that is a natural part of life limited by accommodations provided in society per the neurodiversity/social model of disability, or as in your case one can self identify as not disabled if they choose to.

    And finally one can choose to take offense at the different ways it is viewed when in opposition to those viewpoints. However acceptance requires understanding that there are different viewpoints that all have a reasonable basis underlying those viewpoints.

    Autism is a condition evidenced by limits in brain function, limits in social accommodation, and one where some have adapted well enough, that they consider themselves with no significant disability.

    Many individuals with autism spectrum disorders have co-morbid mental illnesses, but not all are diagnosed with co-morbid mental illness.

    Technically from the government perspective while autism may be classified as a neurological disorder, with clinically significant impairments in social interaction/communication and RRB's, it is considered a mental health problem, in that it is defined as a disability with limits in brain function. There are many other neurological associated conditions considered mental health problems as well, like ADHD.

    It's often a matter of semantics of whether the words mental, disease, illness are used as some find them offensive, however they are conditions that have the potential of resulting in a disability of differing levels of severity whether one adheres to the social or medical model of disability, or if one with a diagnosis does not see them self as having a disability.

    Abelism is suggesting that all mass murderers are either psychopaths or psychotics or that all individuals that commit mass murders are autistic, or even if one states that more than often this is the case, as usually the causal factors are complicated and not understood as having any one common causal factor. Close to half of 102 of rampage killers studied in research done in the year 2000 were diagnosed with a mental disorder, but that is not a suggestion that the mental disorders were a direct causation associated with the mass murder. Many factors are likely associated.

    The language one uses in the public eye, can be a delicate issue as stigma can result, but among the masses the same potential exists as well, as terms like crazy, psychopath, psychotic, insane are all used to describe common situations in life, that stigmatize those that have the actual related disorders. While discrimination is part of ableism so is stereotyping mass murders as psychopaths, psychotics or autistic. Unfortunately individuals with autism appear to be as likely to more likely to do this as anyone else, in the general public.

    The author brings this to our attention.

  12. As the parent of a child with autism and another with bipolar disorder, I thank you for this post! My daughter is just as hurt by uneducated remarks about a criminal's likely mental health issues as my son is about such references regarding autism.

  13. "For insulting people's intelligence:


    Any idea of the credibility of insulting intelligence, in a fuller autism community that is comprised of approximately 38% of individuals with intellectual disability, is unsettling to me, as I have seen this happen over and over again when those with obvious learning difficulties on the spectrum attempt to provide a point of view, in an online community, and are not accepted when there is a stereotype expressed, that it is a given that people on the spectrum must have perfect grammar and spelling skills in interacting on the internet, as well as understanding nuances of social interaction, and in addition a wide range of expertise of knowledge on various topics.

    What this can lead to are the ableist comments of asinine, ignorant, ignoramus, unintelligent, or insipid for those that do not meet elite standards. I've learned as much or more from the "common folk" than I have learned from those that profess or indicate intellectual superiority.

    Not everyone on the spectrum meets University Standards, nor should they be expected to meet them, when online communities may be their only potential for connection with the world.

    Perhaps I can see both sides of the issue as my difficulties with verbal abilities were ridiculed with these words of ableism through the course of my lifetime, whereas I was praised for making good grades on multiple choice tests, that are not always part of success in the real world.

    I cannot imagine personally using these words that potentially degrade the dignity of humanity of another individual, in a community where there are people that do have learning disabilities, nor would I use them in real life among those that profess or suggest "intellectual superiority" because personal attacks do not lead to constructive results in communication.

    I think it is a potential mistake to suggest that this it is acceptable to insult intelligence or use these terms that can be perceived as ableist terms, for those that may not be as intellectually gifted as others. People do not usually announce their learning disabilities in online communities, or elsewhere, nor should they be required to, to avoid this type of insult of ableist language. The only way to avoid this potential consequence of the loss of dignity of humanity for these individuals, is to avoid the use of the language, and certainly not to recommend it as acceptable.

  14. You're going to hate me, but I have to admit to using the word retard about someone who is stupid by my definition*, though I never use it about people with intellectual disabilities because even they are aware of the insult, even those who cannot understand what the insult actually is. I feel that there's really not much point in 'taking back' words that will always be easy to use as insults, especially if it ends up in a situation where only some people may use the words without it being an automatic insult, such as is the case currently with the N-word.
    *My definition of stupidity is someone who doesn't make the most of the IQ they have. Somebody with a mental age of three and who acts it isn't stupid, but a sixteen-year-old of average intelligence who does things someone half his age would know not to do is.


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