[My 800 word piece for my magazine portfolio submitted last semester]
Labels are meant for jars, not people. With the words ‘mad’ and ‘retarded’ already accepted forms of insults, is the word ‘autism’ not far away from the dubious honour?
When France’s European Minister Pierre Lellouche said that the Tories had castrated UK’s position in Europe by adopting an autistic approach and that they have a bizarre sense of autism, most people were debating about the ramifications of UK’s stand on the issue. A smaller minority expressed outrage about Pierre Lellouche’s use of the word ‘autistic’. I was one of them.
If Lellouche had called the Tories ‘homos’ or ‘niggers’, there would have been an outcry. So how did he manage to call the Tories ‘autistic’ by way of insulting them and get away with it? It doesn’t matter why he did it; his behaviour was inexcusable.
Too often people use disabilities as an abusive way of insulting the so-called normal human beings. A few years ago, my family and I were in a restaurant, my then 4-year-old autistic brother started crying and refused to calm down. A patron sitting at the next table looked over and said very loudly: “What’s wrong with these people? If they have retarded children, they should keep them at home.” Then we were asked to leave the restaurant by the management because ‘the other diners were getting disturbed’. It hurt. It hurt because my brother is not retarded. He, like thousands of other people has an autistic spectrum disorder. It also hurt because it was acceptable then (and still is) to insult someone by way of calling them ‘retarded’ and prevent them from experiencing a routine aspect of life. It’s absolutely abhorrent when one hears the word ‘retarded’ being thrown around as if it were commonplace even in classrooms in secondary schools.
Now it seems ‘autistic’ is the new way of doing it. Since when are mentally handicapped or autistic people not normal? They have a face, two eyes, a nose, a mouth. They look like other human beings. They even feel like everyone else. Being unable to communicate the way the majority of the population does doesn’t give anyone the right to insult them or marginalize the problems they face.
The general public doesn’t seem to have any idea of what autism is outside of Rainman. They think they’ve seen the movie and are therefore experts. Not every autistic person is a savant (a genius in some areas), not every autistic person knows how to wear their clothes themselves and not every autistic person can talk.
For me, autism is about the constant effort to wean my brother out of diapers at night. It’s about teaching him how to wear his shoes. It’s about helping him brush his own teeth. It’s about trying to teach him to do something as simple as imitate other people. The public haven’t got the first clue about the reality of autism. Until you’ve lived with autism or worked in the field, you ain’t seen nothing.
Which is why perhaps, it is not surprising that the public did not raise an outcry against the use of the word as an insult by Lellouche. One wonders if newspapers, in using his quote as their headline, inadvertently made it more acceptable to insult others similarly. I fear that, right now, people would find it perfectly normal (there’s that word again) to say: “You’re so autistic!” and mean it in a hurtful way. But I wouldn’t, in the middle of a fight, use it to be derogatory towards the other person. Because it isn’t.
Families dealing with autism did speak out about this in public forums. One father mentioned in a letter to a newspaper how his 11-year-old autistic son, who could read, had spent years building up a sense of self-esteem, knowing he was not like everyone else. The father in question threw the newspaper that used the quote as a headline before his son could see it. It is unimaginable how an autistic person would feel, reading such news and knowing that Lellouche used their condition as an insult. As if they already didn’t have enough to cope with, now their very being is deemed to be a matter of ridicule?
As for me, I didn’t have to protect my brother; he can’t read. Also, it helps as he lives in Dubai and the geographical distance meant that this did not make headline news.
Families dealing with autism know all too well that it is not derogatory to be autistic. It doesn’t make your child or you (if you’re autistic) a lesser person. I’ve found that autistic people are kind and prone to unconditional love and forgiveness.
Which is more than I can say for many of the ‘normal’ people out there.