By Laurie Mawlam
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 you 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, complete with pointers on how to craft journalistic stories in a balanced and accurate manner.
Here are a few key things to keep in mind:
Don’t try to oversimplify stories on autism
There are often both nuanced positives and negatives to consider when discussing autism. While it may be more dramatic in a media 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 positive attributes or benefits too.
At the same time, however, it is important to convey that living with autism can be a daily struggle for many individuals and their families. Finding a balance between these positive and negative depictions will give readers a more accurate description.
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. Avoid saying that nothing can be done for individuals with autism and avoid depicting the outlook or potential of an autistic life as bleak. Make a point of saying that there are known supports and options available that can improve health and independence.
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. You can acknowledge or describe the challenges those with autism face without defining them as lacking or deviating from the norm.
Acknowledging the person is paramount
Keep in mind that you are discussing people and not just a neurobiological condition when writing about autism. Try to keep stories 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. Using more neutral terminology will provide more balance and respects the rights of the individual.
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. Ask individuals with autism how autism affects them instead, and their families, and what type of supports or accommodations they require.
Framing autism in a more nuanced manner using these basic pointers – with more tips available in the guide – can help make your media story on autism accurate, and can help your words resonate by reflecting the true, lived experiences of those on the autism spectrum and those who support autistics.
Laurie Mawlam has been Executive Director of Autism Canada since 2006. In 2007, she founded the Canada Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance (CASDA) with other key autism leaders. She currently sits as Past-Chair and Treasurer. She has participated in Senate and House of Commons Committee hearings, has sat on numerous working groups to lead us to a National Autism Strategy and has been an ASD champion since one of her three sons was diagnosed with autism in July 2000.