The terminology of disability

I was faintly taken aback yesterday to find somebody here asking me if I was on the autistic spectrum simply because I had not found something she said offensive. She had written a pastiche of my profile on here which was apparently intended to offend me but which I found mildly amusing and finished off by saying, 'Offensive, isn't it?' I responded in a humorous vein by asking innocently,
'Offensive to whom?'
To which she replied,
'Really? Are you sure you are not on the autistic spectrum? '
I think, although it is difficult to be sure, that she was the same person who said that she thought that I had Asperger's syndrome because I can be a little forthright in expressing my opinions. I have to say, this is a pretty bizarre idea; that somebody who responds good naturedly to something deliberately offensive, should then be diagnosed as having a disability! It really makes me wonder about the mental processes of anyone who could use such peculiar logic.

It is funny how the use of expressions like these changes over the years. We routinely use the word 'idiot' as an insult, but barely a century ago it was a precise clinical diagnosis, being the term used for somebody with an IQ of less than 30. The same applied to the word 'imbecile', (IQ 26 -50) and of course 'moron' (IQ 51-70). These were once very useful words, although few of us would dream of employing them today to describe somebody with learning difficulties! Because people began using them as insults, they became devalued and professionals abandoned them. This is a shame, because of course it is very useful to have exact terms for levels of learning disability like this. Spastic is another clinical description which we rarely use these days. We tend to refer instead to those with cerebral palsy. This is of course because 'spastic' has gone the same way as the words 'idiot' and 'imbecile'; that is to say they have all degenerated into mere abuse. Still, children are usually a step ahead of us when we try to deprive themselves of such handy ways of being rude. Since the Spastics' Society re-branded itself as Scope a few years ago, children in the playground now call each other 'scopers' rather than 'spastics'!

There are two problems with the use of euphemism like this. The first is that the euphemisms quickly become offensive themselves. 'Retarded' went out a few years ago to be replaced with 'mentally handicapped'. We now talk of special needs and learning difficulties. If I referred here to some kid being retarded, I suspect that it might cause offence and yet only a few years ago it would have been perfectly correct and unobjectionable. My daughter tells me that 'retard' is a popular term of abuse at her college. There is a very high turnover in euphemisms in the field of special educational needs and if you use an outdated one then you immediately reveal yourself as at best out of touch and at worst insensitive. How shall we describe that blind kid? Differently abled? Visually impaired? Having seeing difficulties? Fortunately, because I work in Hackney and Haringey I am always on the ball in this respect! The other problem is that useful words and phrases are avoided and everybody gets muddled up. 'Learning difficulties' is used with slightly different meanings by teachers, nurses and social workers and can mean anything from mild dyslexia to catastrophic brain damage. Somebody who is hearing impaired might be a little hard of hearing in one ear or he could be completely deaf.

This is why I object to the use of 'autistic' or 'Asperger's' to describe somebody who appears to be rude or insensitive. There are plenty of rude and insensitive people in the world and very few of them have Asperger's Syndrome. And of course not all those who have Asperger's Syndrome are rude and insensitive. Using the expression in a pejorative way simply has the effect of reinforcing sterotypes. If we sling words like autistic and Asperger's about too freely then they will soon become debased and meaningless. There are any number of ways to describe me without resorting to the terminology of disability. Self-opinionated, arrogant, snobbish, blunt; all these are probably quite adequate! Asperger's Syndrome is a very clear diagnosis and if we are not careful it will go the same way as 'idiot' or 'moron' and we will get up one morning and find that it is no longer in polite usage. In fact, I have heard kids using 'autistic' in the same way that they once used 'spastic', so I suspect that this process might already have begun. Saloon bar pundits regularly suggested that Gordon Brown displayed the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome and I have heard this said of other politicians who lack charm or charisma. It is becoming quite fashionable to dismiss somebody whom you find aloof as probably having Asperger's. To this extent, I am fighting a losing battle here and ten years down the line both 'Asperger's' and 'autistic' will have slipped into the same category as 'spastic' and 'imbecile'. It is just slightly depressing to see the parents of children on the autistic spectrum hastening this process along!