There is a great debate in the autism community about how to refer to someone that has been diagnosed with autism. In general, it is usually parents or individuals who do not have autism that advocate for the terms “person with autism.” It is usually adults or teens living with autism that prefer the term “autistic.” I have a different perspective than most on this subject. For me, the terms are both equally applicable, but not equal in meaning. Saying that a person has autism is not the same as saying that person is autistic.
Autism for me is a thing. It is an abstraction. It is a label that is meaningless and insignificant until you apply a meaning to it. I consider myself to be a person with autism, not an autistic person. I have been diagnosed with autism, but I have not and generally do not allow myself to be autistic. You see, to be autistic is to be part of a community that lives differently. Being autistic is embracing the differences that come with autism and learning to live those differences rather than hide them.
To show you what I mean by this, I will give two examples. The first is a child who is born deaf. If that child is born into a family that is aware of and embraces the deaf community, the child will learn sign language. They will learn to communicate using their differences and to embrace the world created by their differences. On the other hand, a child born to parents that are completely unaware of what the deaf community has to offer may opt for cochlear implants, may teach their child to read lips, may communicate with their child through writing rather than words, or do other things to help the child live life despite their differences. One approach teaches the child what is possible because of their differences. The other approach teaches the child what is not possible because of their differences.
Another example that may be applicable to more people is terms used for athletics. Someone who plays sports is called an athlete. Someone who places an importance on sports so that it becomes part of their life is athletic. I enjoy sports. I play them when I can and have played on teams before. However, I would not say I’m athletic. I may have an athletic build, but I am not athletic in how I live my life. Likewise, I have autism, but I am not autistic in how I live my life.
I admire people who can be autistic. I also admire people who have autism, but are not autistic. One way of living is not necessarily better than another. It is simply different. However, in saying that, I need to make a point that I believe we should be more accepting of autistic people. The general public tends to admire people with autism, the people that pass for “normal” and do not show autistic traits. We say that they learned to control it, that they overcame this obstacle, that they faced opposition and did not let it stop them. While this is all true, it does not make the autistic person less valuable. They have learned to embrace what others fail to even acknowledge. They have learned to be themselves even if it doesn’t look like the people around them.
Honestly, I do not want to be autistic. I don’t think I could face that pressure. I have always wanted to be “like everybody else.” I pride myself on my ability to blend in. I cling to my sense of belonging. Maybe someday I can be autistic, but for now, I am simply a person with autism, and that is okay.