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Name-Calling: Autistic Person vs. Person with Autism

child with autism self-bundled in string hammockLast week, someone contacted me with some concerns about my language on this website.  I am quite cavalier about how I refer to the autistic state.  It may seem offensive to people who are politically minded, for me to be so direct or blunt.  It is not my intention to give offence or be politically incorrect, but to communicate effectively.

I tend to mix it up when speaking about people with autism. As you probably know, referring to something you personally embody can often be done more casually. While I understand the political debate about naming the person, not the disease, it does not have great relevance for my special interest.

From my years steeped in both the experiences of autism, and the science that can make sense of it, I do not believe autism is a disease, but instead a natural, positive, and adaptive response to stress.  This adaptive response is being overwhelmed by the current plethora of stressors (in the full scientific sense of the word).  Nature doesn’t make viable mistakes; for a pattern to survive, there is some adaptive advantage to a particular change or difference.

For a moment, imagine a pregnant mother or her community experiencing high stress.  In her unborn child, that extra cortisol decreases the expression of testosterone in males, or decreases the expression of estrogen in females, promoting less gendered development and behaviours.  This cortisol also has impacts on how the brain develops.  The sensory system is often on high alert, and the problem-solving abilities often kicked into high gear.  Children born to environments with only moderate additional stressors go on to become scientists, musicians, inventors, professors — in short, problem-solvers who are considered highly sensitive people.

I have witnessed autistics uncovering their brilliance as they emerge from the fog (caused by too many stressors) to become highly sensitive people, and conversely witnessed highly sensitive people sink into the fog of autistic symptoms as additional stressors overwhelm them. These changes have resulted from changes in physical health and emotional support. As a result, wording matters much less to me than restoration of health on all levels.

Our autistic neurodiversity does not come and go with health; once the brain has evolved differently, it will always be more sensorially alert, more oriented towards pattern recognition in large datasets, than it is towards intense social pursuits. However, our ability to express our neurodiversity in constructive (or economically valued) ways can change dramatically.

Relieve sufficient stress and health challenges for someone of any age with autism, and you release someone who wants to solve problems and make the world a better place, because the “ugliness” is so much “noisier” for all of our senses.  Does it really matter what we call it?


  1. sheila mansell says:

    Can’t wait to speak. This is a great write up and we have lots to talk about.

  2. Mari Sargent says:

    I agree, Jackie. Well said, as always.

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