Terminology and the media

May 9, 2021

Just like pronoun usage helps people of all different genders feel seen, appropriate autism terminology is a critical ingredient in promoting neurodiversity.

Terms like high-functioning or low-functioning, commonly associated with the autistic community, are being abandoned in favor of more supportive language.

“These phrases were created by people who are seeing things from the outside in an effort to categorize what they perceive as being closer or farther away from normal,” Pervez said. “Someone may see a person that communicates atypically and categorize them as low-functioning, which is kind of saying that that person needs someone else to make choices for them and that their life is impaired by how their brain works.”

Educating the public about acceptable terminology and neurodiversity has created a need for media that portrays characters with autism in various ways.

Television shows like “Atypical,” “The Good Doctor,” and “Everything’s Gonna be Okay” are centered around autism with characters that have many traits in common, which often discounts the true diversity of neurodivergent people.

“We have a handful of portrayals of autism, and they all tend to be the same character subtype of the very smart white dude, or sometimes the very smart white lady, which is only representing a small portion of the autistic community,” Pervez said.

By omitting stories about people with different needs played by actors with autism, the public is consuming a stereotype that ostracizes people that do not fit that assumption.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”

— Kelly Bertenthal, MHA

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” Bertenthal said. “Each person is different and has different experiences, which should be reflected in shows and movies.”

In addition to the inclusion of autistic characters on screen, actress and director Maureen O’Neill emphasized the importance of neurodiversity behind the curtain or camera.

“It takes a lot of nuance to create characters that are fully developed and don’t rely on stereotypes,” O’Neill said. “Having autistic writers, directors, and actors on the creative team would be a step in the right direction.”

O’Neills’ daughter, Charlotte, was diagnosed with autism around age three after receiving a recommendation for an assessment from her preschool teacher.

In total, Charlotte’s diagnosis took around six months, including waiting lists, interviews, and exploring schools. The journey provided O’Neill with a new outlook on ASD and insight into how communities can become more autism-friendly.

“There’s nothing wrong with Charlotte. She communicates differently, and she interacts with the world differently, but It’s almost like she’s a zebra and I’m a panda,” O’Neill said. “As a society, I think we need to stop looking at autistic people as if they’re wrong and slow down. The more mindful we are, the more space we have for tolerance.”

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