BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 15:57 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

Has Ďautismí become a term of abuse?

By Tamsyn Kent
BBC News Magazine

A French politician has used the term "autism" to criticise the Tory Party's policy on Europe. Misunderstood or not, his choice of words highlights how the word is used in a negative way. How did that happen?

Woman covers her ears
'Autism' is being used as a slang term

It is not the first time a politician has caused a furore by using the word autism. Three years ago the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, appeared to suggest Prime Minister Gordon Brown could be "faintly autistic".

Now, France's Minister for Europe, Pierre Lellouche, has accused David Cameron of "castrating" Britain's position in Europe, adding that his approach was "pathetic". He has since said his use of the word "pathetique" has been misunderstood and can mean sad or unfortunate in French.

But it was his use of the word "autism" which caused most offence. He says he did not realise the word "autism" could been seen as offensive in English and has retracted his remark.

Whatever way he meant it, "autistic" is often used as an insult and it's insensitive to use a term that describes a disability or a condition in this way, says the National Autistic Society.

"I thought we'd got over that from the 1970s when people used to use the term 'spastic' in the playground," says Benet Middleton from the society. "To have senior politicians doing that is thereby signalling that it's ok and that is deeply worrying."

'Vogue' term

For many the complex nature of autism makes the pejorative use of the term even more misguided and unhelpful. Alexis Miller was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, 14 years ago.

"I want him to apologise and take it back. I think it's wrong. Even if someone is autistic, it should not be used in an insulting way because he is basically calling us pathetic autistics. I'm not pathetic, I'm a person."

More than half a million people in the UK have the condition which affects the way they communicate and relate to those around them. People with the condition often have difficulties with everyday social interaction.

Relatively unheard of or even recognised years ago, autism is now firmly in the public domain, partly due to films like Rain Man in 1988. And, some lexicographers argue its slang usage is down to it becoming a "vogue" term.

C'est pathétique. C'est juste très triste de voir la Grande-Bretagne, si importante en Europe, se couper du reste de l'UE et disparaître des écrans radar
Ils n'ont qu'une formule et ne font que la répéter. C'est une forme très bizarre d'autisme
Source: AFP

It has become part of people's vocabulary following the same route slang often does. It is very often originated by teenagers at street or playground level.

"There aren't many constraints on youngsters, especially when they're talking to each other," says Tony Thorne, Language and Innovation Consultant at King's College London.

"What they say is meant to be traded among themselves and therefore anything goes. They use a lot of racist, sexist and ageist language."

He explains it could also have originated from media slang which comes mainly from the United States and is a mixture of showbiz and therapy terms.

But what accounts for the use of the term by people in power, those, who it is deemed, should know better?

Offensive slang

"The minister hasn't picked it up from street slang, he's picked it up from the media and the current vogue-ish language for the purpose of rhetoric, for effect. You could say for cheap effect, both on behalf of George Osbourne and this French minister," says Mr Thorne.

Lexicographers argue it is a powerful tool used to dramatise the idea of impaired communications, to taunt those deemed not able to articulate or understand a range of ideas.

A boy with autism hides his head
Sufferers find social interaction hard

"People have very limited knowledge or awareness of autism and they think it's something to do with the way people communicate and so they use that sometimes as a way to insult people if they think they're communicating in a way that's different," says Mr Middleton.

And, once slang enters the public's vocabulary it is difficult to eradicate. Some argue that it is only when whole societies undergo a process of sensitisation - what some might call political correctness - that certain terms are outlawed.

Much of the power of slang derives, undoubtedly, from its novelty. Experts say most terms have a shelf life of around three or four years. It eventually seeps into everyday language and then the people at the cutting edge, the inventors, abandon it and move on to something else.

"People think that slang kind of disappears. It doesn't completely go away, it relapses into the slang underworld," says Mr Thorne.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I'm not sure Lellouche's explanation that it's OK in French convinces me; but the National Autistic Society were quick to ask for an apology. I think we should all have broad shoulders with any form of name calling; but it is inappropriate for our leaders to use it publically.
John, Macclesfield

This article misses a vital point. French psychiatry is still struggling with the idea of autism. Even today, mothers are blamed for the behaviour of their children by a large contingent of French psychiatrists. Much of the treatment of those on the autistic spectrum in France today would be considered inhumane by our standards. It is therefore not surprising that a politician wouldn't even appreciate that what he said was in the least bit offensive.
Fluffty, Preston, Lancashire

As the parent of a very able young woman with an autism spectrum condition, and a branch officer of the National Autistic Society I am disgusted with this casual use of the term 'autistic' as a form of abuse. Many people with autism are far more intelligent and verbally articulate than most of the people this insult is being levelled against. In fact I would say the term autistic could almost be used as a compliment for someone who is precise and accurate in one particular area.
Karen Varga, Alcester, UK

I don't think it's offensive. We use lots analogical terms:
Blind leading the blind
Financially crippled
Falling on deaf ears
Financial depression
I have a disabled child, the only time I would find such terms offensive is if they were directed at a person who has such a problem in a derogatory way. That said, it doesn't mean I like name calling etc, it says a lot about the person who feels they have to resort to such base language to put someone down.
David, UK

I have Aspergers myself and do not like the idea of "autistic" being used as a throwaway term to describe anyone whose way of relating to the world is different. But it is nothing new - "paranoid schizophrenic" was another term that used to be bandied around a lot in the 80s by people who clearly wouldn't even know how to look it up in a dictionary.
Mark, London, UK

Thank you for providing the French transcript of what M. Lellouche actually said. To me, it seems that he wasn't necessarily using "d'autisme" as a crass slur or insult. Rather, he appears to be describing (in his opinion) how the Conservative Party repeat a formulaic stance towards Europe, and likening it to the image of a "stereotypical" autism sufferer - constantly repeating a phrase, sound or action (and shutting out external stimuli) to regain composure and control when they feel overwhelmed. To me, M. Lellouche is still criticising the Tories, but is not necessarily using autism in the way in which this article, or media in general, suggest.
Gerard, London

I think it's important that using Autism in this way has been highlighted as offensive and wrong now, so that it doesn't become a common occurrence. I guess the most obvious example of a word which has become a derogatory term through slang is the word gay, which is also horribly offensive. Unfortunately this has become so widely used it is going to be hard to stop.
Lesley Campbell, Manchester, UK

I have AS. Apparently, I therefore HAVE to be insulted by Mr Lellouche's comments, despite not knowing their context, or knowing anything of the Tories' European policy - the thing he was "insulting". Thanks, but I think I'll pass until I can be sure how he actually meant the comment. Also, what made Mr Middleton think "spastic" would be the last diagnosis to be used as an insult? Diagnoses of this kind will become slang insults until the medical and psychological professions move away from their system of diagnosing using purely negative criteria. Really, it's hardly rocket science. Negative criteria => negative traits => something "wrong" with the person => an insult.
Kenneth, Holywood, N Ireland

My son is autistic and whilst I would baulk at anyone using the term as one of offence, it is undeniable that it is a unique term to describe a particularly specific way of thinking. Machines can be disabled, competitions handicapped, pleas fall on deaf ears; I'm pleased that there's finally enough public awareness of autism for the term to become part of common parlance.
Tom, Cambridge

The then New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark got into similar trouble two years back when she called a political opponent "cancerous". I was among those who objected to my medical condition being turned into a term of abuse. Perhaps politicians could just lay off the "sick" slurs altogether?
Dale, Wellington

It's part of human nature, I'm afraid. We keep changing the terms as they become misused and seen - probably rightly - as being abusive, but it'll never stop. I am a teacher: our school has a Special Needs Unit, my wife works in a Special School. What term do run of the mill kids use as an insult? You got it - "Special".
Doug Morrison, Inverness

Whenever names for things change to avoid a pejorative inference, people use the "new" politically-correct name in the way they did the old one. So when I was at primary school in the 1980s, we used "special needs" as, no doubt, our peers 10 years earlier used "spastic". And my younger brother and his mates used "diff" as a term of abuse - from "differently abled" which was the term in vogue in the 1990s.
Amanda, London

French intellectuals have used terminology taken from psycho-analysis and psycho-therapy in their political and cultural discourse for many years. Lellouche probably thought he was being clever, not insulting.
Rob, Athens

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