ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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What We Talk about When We Talk about Autism

It is time to rethink how language makes and mars autistic representation in the popular imagination.

Of late, popular culture is replete with instances of autistic individuals who are depicted as being trapped by their condition. Autism’s increasing popularity in our contemporary cultural narratives has generated certain tropes around it ever since its inception as a diagnosable condition in the 1940s by child psychiatrists Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. Authoritative medical texts, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), have further perpetuated this idea, belittling the everyday lives of individuals diagnosed with autism and adding to the stigma associated with mental illness. Such texts, along with popular discourses on autism, often employ “ableist language” that implies the inherent inferiority of disabled people compared to their non-disabled counterparts. This bias generally works through the construction of a norm, with any difference or deviation understood as inferior. Autism advocates stress the importance of understanding autism as both a difference and a disability, where the experience of disability arises from the impairments of the autistic person and their interactions with the environment that is constructed around a normative standard.

Ableist language makes it impossible to speak about disabilities such as autism without invoking this sense of lack or inferiority. Since such prejudice is embedded in the very language used to understand and describe autism, any discursive representation inadvertently perpetuates established biases without the possibility of dismantling them. It is essential to recognise how language actively determines our understanding of the world rather than merely reflecting knowledge considered to be “outside” language.

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Updated On : 25th Sep, 2023
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